Beating back the metallic thuds, relentless clacks, rhythmic noise, and bass sounds stands as a daily occurrence in some Bronx neighborhoods, with Norwood and Bedford Park no exception.
Unwanted noise, a never-ending nuisance that somehow, despite registering as a top quality of life complaint, remains perpetually prevalent. It is the city that never sleeps, and noise is living up to that adage.
And as the holiday season settles in, the uptick in noise complaints usually follows. For the NYPD and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, agencies tasked to respond to aggravating noise issues, the priority to curb the nuisance is stymied by bureaucracy that subjugates the quality of life for many Bronx residents, offering no immediate relief.
The investigation found bureaucratic barriers for police officers, outdated noise meters, grossly under-trained officers who use the meters, and a city policy that seems to encourage residents to resolve noise-related issues among themselves, disregarding any potential conflicts. Handling noise within the 52nd Precinct, the stationhouse covering Norwood, is a task that’s also marred by what amounts to be a busy precinct.
But a busy precinct as reason to hold off noise complaints holds very little sympathy for residents who’ve battled the culture of noise for years. Immediate relief does not come fast enough for residents yearning for it. In some cases, it doesn’t come at all.
It’s certainly the case for Herman Guy, a retired social worker living in Bedford Park. Peace and quiet is patchy for Guy, who has dealt with the midnight clamor of loud music coming from three different buildings in his neighborhood at East 202nd Street.
On weekends, the pounding bass sounds of bachata originating from an apartment building across the street penetrates Guy’s apartment. “[W]hen they put the music on, it seems like the later it gets the louder the volume of the music goes up,” Guy said.
Residents living in the noisy apartment building were not home when the Norwood News visited the building. A next-door neighbor confirmed that loud parties happen, though he’s not bothered by them as much as he is by idling vehicles playing music loudly. “Sometimes the dishes are almost vibrating,” the next-door neighbor said.
Calling the local 52nd Precinct hasn’t worked out so well for Guy.
“They tell me okay, we’re gonna send them down from the precinct and have someone take a look at it,” Guy said. “And I’m home, an hour goes by, two hours go by, three hours go by, and the cops don’t come by.”
Unwanted noise isn’t just confined to nighttime parties or clatter from a construction project. In Brant Alpert’s case, deafening noise is a daytime occurrence. A resident of Kings College Place in Norwood, Alpert’s constantly hearing a clamor of car horns honking, overlapping loud enough to “raise the dead at Woodlawn Cemetery” that’s found at the end of the block.
“Morning and afternoon, every weekday,” Alpert said of the noise issues. “The sound of angry voices yelling back and forth among the drivers sometimes adds to the noise, with a spectre of violence in the air. I’d like to see a return to the time when a school street, at arrival and dismissal times, was closed to vehicular traffic.”
On Jerome Avenue, Amazing Linens, a store hard to miss on the strip, thanks to its collection of gold-colored banners that read “We Buy Gold,” remains the number one culprit for amplified sound. A booming amplifier tucked between two linen displays outside the store can be heard to the detriment of wincing passersby with a male voice blasting it’s going out of business (it’s done so for the past year). The sound, heard for hours, can also be heard blocks away.
“The recording is very hard to ignore or tune out,” Judy Noy, a resident, said. “I wonder how many others are adversely affected.”
Among the distressed is Babo Caba, a street vendor who’s set up a street shop directly in front of Amazing Linen. “I don’t like it, but you have no choice,” Caba said. “It’s been almost a year now.”
It’s also in violation of 10-108 of the city administrative noise code, which bars stores from using amplifiers to attract customers. Baha Awad, co-owner of the store, assured the Norwood News he’ll lower the volume.
There’s also the noise near the Botanical Square apartments, where amplifiers are usually brought out to the street during the summer, blasting ear-shattering music that made the season “worst of all” for noise. One resident, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said the noise is ongoing, even in the winter.
“During the colder months, they bring their noise into the hallways/common areas,” said the resident. “When there’s a house party, they often have guests out by the stairs talking loudly, drinking alcohol, and smoking marijuana while their house door is open for the entire floor to hear the music.”
In her case, she’s called 911 only to see them “make one loop around the building in their car and drive right out.” She’s even gone so far as to tell the occupants to lower the music. Finally, she’s tracked her complaints via 311, New York City’s so-called “front door” to city agencies. Filing the complaint is not a quick fix, as most residents would think, but more of an on-the-record account of an incident that leads to larger investigation into a troubling noise issue. In the caller’s case, her complaint is one of some 10,000 residential-related noise complaints filed through 311.
Over the last six years, data compiled from 311 shows noise as the top complaint for residents living within the 10467 zip code, largely considered Norwood. In September, the Norwood News reviewed 311 calls taken over the last six years within Community Board 7, the civic body covering Norwood, Bedford Park, Kingsbridge Heights, Fordham, and University Heights and found the following number of complaints for varying types of noises, and how many were generated within the 10467 zip code:
- Commercial Noise: 721; 1,336 since 2010
- Residential Noise: 10,196; 37,387 since 2010
- Collection Truck 6; 7 since 2010
- Generic Noise: 485; 918 since 2010
- Street/Sidewalk Noise: 2203; 5921 since 2010
- Vehicle Noise: 1,044; 2,766 since 2010
- Park Noise: 95; 296 since 2010
- Noise Survey: 137; 184 since 2010
- House of Worship Noise: 20
- Helicopter: 9
Other findings include:
- The 10467 zip code has the highest number of commercial, residential, and collection truck noise complaints in all of the Bronx.
- The 10463 zip code ranks highest for generic noise complaints.
- The 10452 zip code ranks highest for street/sidewalk and vehicle noise complaints
- 24 of 25 neighborhoods of the Bronx show that residential noise complaints are highest number of complaints out of the six noise complaint categories (exception was the 10464 zip code, home to City Island, where commercial complaints outnumber residential).
Investigating Noise Complaints
Noise is categorical from the bureaucratic perspective of New York City government, which responds to noise complaints through various methods. For the NYPD, discretion by a responding police officer is usually the deciding factor over whether a violator will get a ticket or warning under the administrative noise code, where the city approaches various kinds of noise differently.
In nearly every instance there is no quick fix or guarantee that a noise complaint will end satisfactorily for the complainant. What could be loud for one, may not be loud for police officers, the last voice that decides whether to issue a summons or give a warning.
The NYPD is alerted of noise complaints either through a specific precinct’s front desk, the 911 emergency system, or 311, beginning a paper trail that includes a location of the assumed violator. After issuing an open ticket, 311 quickly routes the calls to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), since the nature of the call focuses on the state of a given landscape, or to the local NYPD precinct, depending on key words said by a caller. Operators of the service handle some 58,000 311 complaints a day, that are redirected to the appropriate agency in a matter of minutes.
It’s at the local precinct where noise complaints are placed on a “sheet,” a listing of “jobs” NYPD patrol officers are given by the front desk during patrol. But officers operate in triage, prioritizing calls according to its emergent nature. Noise complaints, notwithstanding its annoyances and an urgent need to cease quickly, does not fall on a level of priority, further frustrating callers who, good or bad, direct their anger towards 311.
“If I live in a tough neighborhood, people say, ‘I could give a crap about the noise. I want to be able to walk my kid to school without being accosted, robbed, or dodging bullets,” Augie Aloia, professor of Criminal Justice at Monroe College and a retired NYPD sergeant told the Norwood News.
At the 52nd Precinct, covering the neighborhoods of Bedford Park and Norwood, 311 complaints are catalogued and assessed every Monday, a lumbering process that involves follow up visits. Immediate enforcement, police find, is not always easy. In some cases, there’s a kind of discouragement to combat noise complaints in some neighborhoods, working against a need for a better quality of life.
Should police respond to complaints of a resident making a loud noise, for instance, officers can be impeded from doing their job should the occupant disregard answering the door. At the mercy of the law, officers must stand down if a door is not open. Not even taping a summons to the violator’s apartment door can work, a regular practice by the New York City Department of Sanitation, which issues citations to homeowners who leave trash on their front yards as a matter of accountability.
Councilman Andrew Cohen, representing the 11th Council District that includes Norwood and Bedford Park, said he would consider looking into that.
“I don’t see why we couldn’t leave a ticket,” Cohen said. He did encourage constituents to continue calling 311 to address noise issues.
But violations are not a guarantee. Enforcement stands as a discretionary judgment call by responding officers, who can issue a summons for unreasonable under Section 24-233 of the New York City noise code.
In some cases, officers, which also involve those with the DEP, can utilize a noise meter to objectively measure sound. These handheld meters are usually reserved for commercial establishments where sound has exceeded legally acceptable limits. Standards are applied to different types of sound. Nightclub music, for example, cannot exceed 42 decibels or risk getting a summons. The findings, measured on an A and B scale and in decibels, are presented as evidence to the Environmental Control Board, the judicial panel that presides over noise cases. The maximum fine for a noise infraction stands at $24,000.
Operating a noise meter requires training. And as it stands, that training by the NYPD is given to a few. At a New York City Council Committee for Environmental Protection in late June, NYPD Lt. Robert Corbett said that the Police Department, an agency of 34,000 police officers strong, only 1,428 officers have been trained to appropriately use the device to get a reading. Complicating the job further, there’s only one meter per precinct, according to Corbett, and no budgetary funds set aside for more meters.
“Many of the sound meters are older models that cannot get the C scale of frequencies that would pick up base and lower frequencies, which we need for clubs and bars,” Corbett testified. “We are replacing them over the next year or two, and each precinct would have at least one.”
Challenging what a noise meter registers can be contested. False positives can occur, such as when a machine picks up ambient sound, triggering decibel readings to go beyond acceptable limits, according to Council committee testimony from Robert Bookman, a lobbyist for nightclubs that feel that their businesses are targeted, present at the Council committee.
But whether one is the violator or the sufferer, excessive exposure to loud noise can impair hearing. The World Health Organization has long seen prolonged noise to be a long-term health hazard that “goes beyond hearing impairment and includes interference with communications, disturbed sleep, cardiovascular and psycho-physiological effects, reduced performance and changes in social behavior.” In the moment, however, listening to music can make one feel good thanks to the body’s reaction to noise they find pleasing.
“[T]he vibration in the chest will connect with the solar plexus that is between the thoracic cage and the abdominal cage,” Ernesto DeGenova, speech and language pathologist with Union Community Health Center, said. “So the person is always feeling very good because of that transmission of the low frequencies in the body. That’s why when you’re listening to the music you feel very good because of the vibration.”
DeGenova cautioned that the higher the decibels the less time one should be exposed to loud noise.
For now, tackling noise issues remains a battle that’s not so easily won. The 52nd Precinct has increased its number of officers these days thanks to the Neighborhood Coordination Officer Program, which dedicates officers to one precinct. Officer Crystal Reveron of the 52nd Precinct’s Community Affairs Unit sees an increase in numbers as one way to curb noise issues.
“[W]e’re churning out 13 cars, whereas before this program began it was like maybe six or seven,” Reveron said. “[W]e’re double in manpower, so there should not be a reason why we can’t get to 311 [noise complaints].”
Guy of Bedford Park wants to take enforcement a step further. With noise a frequent headache for people, Guy suggests the NYPD consider a Noise Unit, with officers responding solely to noise complaints. The Bloomberg administration did have such a unit, dubbed Operation: Silent Night, but it’s since fizzled out. For now, Guy’s immediate recourse is to turn the volume up on his own radio or television, at least to muffle the noise.
Has the thought of approaching the noisemakers crossed his mind? Yes, though it’s not really a realistic option.
“I know a fight is going to occur because I’m gonna tell them, you know, “Listen, you play your music loud,” Guy said. “And they gonna say, ‘Oh go f— you,’ and then I’m gonna say ‘f— you back.’”
Avoiding conflicts is also the approach of Barbara Stronczer, president of the Bedford Mosholu Community Association, the local civic body that meets monthly. At a September meeting, Stronczer had recounted a summer of endless noise to officers who attending the meeting. Among the issues was a neighboring barbershop whose loudspeakers continued until the place closed.
“We need your help,” Stronczer told the officers. “I know one of my neighbors, who last weekend will scream. And then you lose your cool, and God knows what happens after that.”
Additional research by Daniela Beasley
Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly states where Ernesto DeGenova is employed. He works at Union Community Health.