Big city is hard on the ears, New Yorkers say

Times Square is among the noisiest places in New York, some say. Noise is the top quality of life issue in the city.
Richard Drew/Associated Press
Times Square is among the noisiest places in New York, some say. Noise is the top quality of life issue in the city.

NEW YORK — No wonder they call New York the city that never sleeps. Who can get any shut eye with all the noise?

Screeching subway trains, honking cars, roaring planes, barking dogs and boisterous people make noise the Big Apple’s number one quality-of-life complaint. A city hot line got more than 260,000 noise complaints last year.

Silence, it seems, is the one thing in this city of more than 8 million that’s almost impossible to find, despite a major crackdown on excessive noise.


One of the lesser-known legacies of the recently ended 12-year tenure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg was one of the nation’s toughest noise codes. Under it, every construction site must post a noise mitigation plan, while excessive noise from restaurants, sidewalks, even garbage trucks is illegal.

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Tickets range from $70 for a barking dog to $350 for honking your horn to as much as $8,000 for a nightclub playing loud music.

Despite thousands of violation notices filed with the city last year, health officials warn there are still plenty of places where decibels top 85, a level that can cause hearing damage with prolonged exposure. Some parts of the city frequently exceed 100 decibels — especially where planes swoop a few hundred feet over rooftops.

‘‘This is the noisiest place in New York City,’’ declares Jesse Davis, who stands in the heart of Times Square handing out leaflets for psychic readings. ‘‘It’s toot, toot, toot, toot all day.’’

For two decades, the 57-year-old has done this kind of work, handing out promotional materials for businesses, surrounded by a sea of cabs, cars, and trucks, their drivers often laying on the horn to get pedestrians to move. Davis tries to drown out the noise with music from his earbuds.


On a concrete island in the middle of the square is a shipping container-turned-gourmet food cart called the SnackBox, where clerk Eduardo Zevallos spends his days amid the cacophony ‘‘trying to tune it out.’’

The worst noise? When an ambulance gets stuck in traffic just feet behind him on Broadway. ‘‘So for maybe five minutes, you have to listen to a drowning ambulance sound.’’

At P.S. 85 in Queens’ Astoria neighborhood, children and their teachers have a signal system: Touching a forefinger to the lips while lifting two fingers in the air. That means stop everything because the noise from the elevated subway trains drowns out any speech.

‘‘It’s really loud, and our teacher has to stop every two minutes, or three, when the train comes,’’ says Nepheli Motamed, whose third-grade class is at the mercy of the trains.

Parents recently held a news conference to protest the noise, and they were interrupted 16 times in a half-hour by train squeals.


‘‘This is attention deficit disorder forced on the kids because every few minutes they’re distracted and they have to constantly refocus,’’ says Evie Hantzopoulos, copresident of the school’s parent association.

School officials say acoustic tiles have been installed in the classrooms facing the tracks.

But Nepheli says more still needs to be done. ‘‘It would be easier to learn without the noise,’’ the 8-year-old says.

Barbara Brown puts up with massive jets from John F. Kennedy Airport flying full thrust as low as about 100 feet over her house in Queens’ Springfield Gardens neighborhood, at decibel levels topping 110.

Every few minutes, the roof rattles, the ceilings shake and at night, aircraft lights shine through windows.

A few years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration redesigned New York routes around Kennedy and La Guardia airports after changing navigation from radar to satellite. The greater accuracy allows planes to fly closer together but concentrates the noise.