As a byproduct of human activity, noise is essentially garbage. We tend to treat it as such, in that we absentmindedly let it accumulate until it starts to make us sick, at which point we step back and wonder where it all came from.
Take this map, which was made by the National Park Service. Because noise is harmful to wildlife, they tallied and analyzed some 1.5 million hours of acoustical monitoring data from 600 locations and turned it into a color-coded graphic showing America's loudest and quietest places. Dark blue represents tranquil areas, and bright yellow stands for places where noise piles up like garbage. Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park, with its deep lapis hue, is peaceful and serene. New York, on the other hand, appears to be draped under a neon tarp the color of riboflavin-saturated urine.
I currently live under all that yellow, I can attest that New York is indeed rather loud. And if noise truly is like trash, then everyone in New York inadvertently becomes a hoarder. We let it stack up around us, forgetting about it until it all collapses overhead.
As someone who is blessed with the ability to hear, I fear I have taken this cacophony for granted. While too much noise can be harmful, what about the merely annoying sounds that fill an average day? What if, instead of trying to ignore the noise, you reduced it to its series of parts, tracking and making note of each and every sound as they vibrate around you? If you got to know the noise well enough, would you come to appreciate—or even like—it?
It's worth a shot, and because things tend to gravitate towards extremes in New York, I wanted to go after the loudest and quietest places I could find.
A Beginner's Guide To Measuring Sound
As an acoustic layman, my experience with sound has been purely passive: I'm surrounded by it and I am lucky enough to be able to hear it.
In an effort to better appreciate the sounds of New York, I wanted to measure them. To do this, I relied on an unsophisticated decibel meter purchased from Amazon. The device looks like a cross between a microphone and a thermometer, and I chose this particular model based on its price and the praise it received from a reviewer who used it to gauge how loud her nine cockatiels could get. The birds got up to 105 decibels. Five stars.
The device has a component that, like the thin, taut membrane within our ear canals, detects minute changes in air pressure. Unlike ears, however, my decibel meter processes data indiscriminately; it doesn't attach sentimentality to a song, nor does it recoil at the sound of someone screaming, "Get that damn thermometer out of my face." It simply turns a type of non-ocular energy into a simple number.
Everything the device measures is calculated in dbA, or decibels weighted on the scale of A, which simulates human hearing. That song I was sentimental about—Jagged Edge's "Where The Party At," which played from a boom box across Hoyt Street and immediately took me back to a high school dance where I thought that performing an awkward pantomime of literally looking for a party was a cool thing to do—registered on my meter as 72dbA.
Decibels are a logarithmic unit, meaning a ten-decibel increase results in a sound that is perceived to be about ten times louder. Based on the A scale, 0 dbA is the very lowest intensity sound that a person can hear. Yellowstone National Park, an area of deep blue on that National Park Service map, has an ambient sound level of around 20dBA, and a nearby whisper in those woods would register at 30dBA (and be both poetic and creepy).
According to the packaging, my meter's range maxes out at around 130dBA. Would that be enough to satisfactorily chart the louder sounds New York has to offer? It better—decibel meters aren't free, and I'm not made of decibel meters.
The Loudest Sound In Recorded History
The loudest possible sound on earth is 194 decibels. Any louder, and it would create a shockwave. You see, sound energy travels through the atmosphere—at 194 decibels, the sound is so powerful it just shoves all that damn air out of the way. Should you find yourself exposed to such noise, you wouldn't be able to hear it; human hearing tissue dies at 180dB. You would feel it, however, and it would hurt like the bejesus.
The loudest sound in recorded history happened on August 27, 1883, when a volcano erupted on Krakatoa, an island in the strait between South Sumatra and Jakarta. The explosion was so extraordinary, it shot ash at an estimated 1,600 mph and smoke rose 17 miles into the sky. 100 miles away, a barometer recorded a mercury spike of 2.5 inches, which, when converted retroactively, comes to about 172 decibels of sound.
The eruption was so loud, people 3,000 miles away on the island of Rodrigues reported noise “coming from the eastward, like the distant roar of heavy guns.” 18 hours after the initial explosion, barometers in New York City and Washington, DC showed spikes in pressure. Four subsequent barometric jolts were recorded every 34 hours. The sound of the explosion had traveled around the world four times.
After the eruption, two-thirds of Krakatoa disappeared into the sea. Barring any horrific acts of God, I would not be finding any sounds in New York approaching 172 decibels.
The Loudest Place In New York
For the life of me, I was certain that the loudest place in New York City was on the way to get my weekly burrito.
On 40th Street between 6th and 5th Avenues in Manhattan—near a Chipotle—there is a construction project that demands the funneling of pedestrian traffic into a one-person-wide channel. This passageway, created by orange and white barriers placed in the street, forces people up against a chain-link fence as they walk by. On the inside, the fence is draped with thick material to buffer sound and prevent peekers, but, in one small section, this material is missing. If you stand next to this hole, you are sandwiched between persistent automobile traffic and the phung-du-thwack-du-phung of a jackhammer.
With decibel meter in hand, I headed there for a measurement and some lunch. The burrito met expectations, but the loudness did not. At 88dbA, this narrow pedestrian walkway is loud, but it's certainly no Krakatoa, and, according to many noise charts, it pales in comparison to a lot of things.
Most of these charts, for example, list a jet engine taking off at close proximity as their loudest sound—~150 dBA. This kind of intensity can rupture ear drums, which is why the men and women who work on airport tarmacs wear those heavy-duty ear guards. A runway at JFK or LaGuardia, it seems, would likely be the loudest place in New York. Unfortunately, I was not allowed into these places due to petty bureaucratic reasons such as "being a danger to myself and others," so I was unable to confirm this.
But how often do you find yourself next to a turbine engine? For democracy's sake, I asked around for suggestions. I found that everyone has their own personal Loudest Place In New York, and I took informal samples of a choice few:
-Times Square: 78dbA
-Penn Station during rush hour: 83dbA
-Underneath the 7 train at Court Square: 87dbA
-A LaGuardia approach path at Prospect Park West and 5th street in Brooklyn: 71dbA
I asked NY1 reporter Roger Clark, who has probably been to more places in the five boroughs than almost anyone else, for his opinion. If you live in New York, chances are you've seen him on TV covering hurricanes, chasing after wild turkeys on Staten Island, or participating in roller derby practice. Even though his job has taken him to some uniquely noisy spots, his vote for Loudest Place In New York is one many commuters are familiar with. "I'm pretty sure the loudest place I have been in town is the 4/5/6 train platform at Union Square Subway Station," he says. "There is something about the way the trains come in there that makes it mega loud and screechy, causing some passengers to cover their ears as a response."
He's not alone. When posed with this question, a good number of friends and coworkers also guessed this location to be the city's loudest, so I went to check it out:
It sounded godawful and, at 94dBA, it was certainly loud. But the 4/5/6 stop at Union Square can't be the loudest place in New York. I know this because I recorded two drummers one express stop uptown at Grand Central who produced a reading of 95dbA.
For reference, here is a sampling of other sounds I measured:
-Ambulance passing by five floors below: 66dbA
-39th Street, 3pm: 67dbA
-B Train leaving West Fourth Street: 86dbA
-Empty shopping cart being pushed on Atlantic Avenue: 87dbA
-Truck honking halfway down the block: 75dbA
-Midway across the Brooklyn Bridge's pedestrian walkway as traffic goes by: 73dbA
-Woman singing an aria in the Bryant Park Subway Station: 75dbA (parlando), 88dbA (fortissimo)
For what it's worth, the loudest sound I recorded was when I screamed right into my decibel meter in an attempt to prove I could top 100dBA. I did: 118dbA.
It must be mentioned that decibels correspond only to intensity, not frequency or pitch (that's measured in hertz). The human brain is picky, and it tends to treat high-frequency sounds with disdain. That's why people responded to the metal-on-metal 94dbA screech of the 4 train by covering their ears, while the toe-tapping 95dbA beat of the Grand Central drummers earned a pile of dollar bills.
I had probably selected the wrong tool for the job. Not only is my decibel meter ignorant to a sound's frequency, it also becomes erratic when placed very close to its source. Two people having a polite conversation a foot away, for example, results in readings matched by a subway train screeching away from the station.
Your Brain On Sound
In addition to the device's technical shortcomings, my mind contributed its own faults as well. As my written list of sounds and their accompanying decibel levels grew longer, the amount of information I was able to glean from it seemed to reduce.
Echoic memory—what we use to remember auditory information—has a longer period of retention than visual memory. That's because we usually only have one chance to decide whether or not a sound is worthy of remembrance. It's estimated that this type of sensory memory can hold onto aural information for two to three seconds before we either process and attach meaning to the sound or forget it. I know this because I read it, and am able to revisit the text to make sure I got it right. Had I heard someone tell me this, who knows if I would've retained the info.
Sound needs meaning. Without it, it's just wayward energy—a tree falling in the forest and all that jazz. When a reading flashes on my decibel meter's dull LCD screen, it becomes transformed into a bit of visual data for my brain to analyze before the echoic jury can reach a decision on what it means. Besides permanently injuring my ears or knocking me off of an island and into the Indian Ocean, the effect a loud sound has on me is far too complex to simply assign a number to.
Finding the Loudest Place In New York would help me appreciate sound much in the same way eating the World's Biggest Cannoli would mature my palate.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been looking for the loudest place, but the noisiest.
Noise Versus Sound
Noise is often explained as "an abundance of unwanted sound," meaning the difference between the two is preference. When your favorite song comes on, you turn up the sound. Meanwhile, your neighbor, who doesn't share your affinity for Thin Lizzy, calls to complain about the noise.
Between the winter of 2013 and fall 2014, there were over 140,000 noise complaints made through New York City's 311 service. The most prevalent type of noise complaint, at 52,358 calls, were ones pertaining to loud music and/or parties. How many of these complaints were justified, and how many were made by wet blankets who couldn't handle a little "Jailbreak"? Due to the subjective nature of noise, that line of questioning will forever be moot.
Beyond preference, though, sound can be justly defined as excess noise when it reaches a point where it becomes harmful. There are countless studies on the adverse physical and psychological effects of noise and, according to the World Health Organization, “Worldwide, noise-induced hearing impairment is the most prevalent irreversible occupational hazard."
For humans, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health defines "hazardous noise" as sound that exceeds a time-weighted average of 85 dBA. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection would probably agree, but it also determined that 85 dBA is at the high-end of normal "midtown Manhattan traffic noise." Can normal and hazardous be one and the same? Depending how you play the averages, it can in midtown Manhattan. Unsurprisingly, if you go by sheer number of 311 complaints, this neighborhood is the noisiest in New York.
Early Noise Complaints
"I've been in cities where there are some quiet blocks, but there is no such block in New York." Those are the words of Alfred E. Ommen, a New York City judge who, in 1906, attended a meeting of health officials and public figures to discuss the city's noise problem. Their conclusion: "There was too much racket in New York."
Ironically, Magistrate Ommen was a rather vocal participant at the meeting. “At 8 o’clock in the morning a man comes along grinding scissors and blowing a bugle," he complained. "At 8:15 a fellow comes along shouting Rockaway clams. At 9 o’clock the fresh flower peddler appears and shouts, and then with the automobiles, the milk wagons, the old clothes men, and the children."
Like all gatherings featuring entitled men of considerable means, the meeting soon turned to a battle of one-upmanship. Professor Siegert, a chemist, challenged our friend Alfred, saying, "I’d just like Judge Ommen to live where I do for a week. Across from the Winthrop, where we have a concert hall, a band plays until 2:30 o’clock in the morning, and another one starts in for the benefit of the roller skaters who gather in the hall opposite three times a day. Right under my window a socialist is bawling nightly from the tail of the truck." Other attendees complained about "serenading cats" and the ringing of gongs.
Had these men lived long enough to see modern-day New York, they'd be pleased to find that our socialists are much quieter and the bugle-blowing scissor grinders have gone extinct. Of course, they were just replaced by new sounds, many of which would put their gongs and serenading cats to shame.
Judge Ommen proposed that the chief of police ban all offending noise, a request that was myopic and fundamentally flawed. At the meeting, William P.A. Kohl of Brooklyn succinctly got to the root of this when he asked, "Who will define the unnecessary noises?"
How New York Defines Noise
In 2007, New York's Department of Environmental Protection released a new noise code, the first update in three decades. It lists the acceptable limits of sound for various activities in the city. In other words, they've attempted to draw an acceptable line at where sound becomes noise. And where is that acceptable limit? Well, it's complicated.
Air conditioners can't be louder than 42 decibels "as measured three feet from the noise source at an open door or window of a nearby residence." Music in bars or clubs can't go "7 decibels over the ambient sound level, as measured on a street or public right-of-way 15 feet or more from the source, between 10:00 pm and 7:00 am." Garbage trucks, however, get more leeway than your AC unit or Thin Lizzy. Because these trucks are both necessary and inherently loud things, they aren't considered needlessly noisy unless they surpass 80 decibels (or 85 decibels when the compactor is engaged).
Construction's limits, meanwhile, are no less tricky: "Noise that exceeds the ambient sound level by more than 10 decibels as measured from 15 feet from the source as measured from inside any property or on a public street is prohibited." Considering average midtown traffic can reach 85dBA, the construction site I pass on the way to get a burrito—the one I once thought to be the loudest place in New York—could be within the accepted limit.
New York gleefully tip-toes along the edges of all these self-imposed limitations. Depending on personal opinion, it really is quite impressive.
Keeping Track of New York's Sound
At any given moment, New York tends to hover between 50dBA and 90dbA, depending where you are.
Within that wide range, New York's sound is wildly unpredictable. Keeping track of it, I found, is like tallying high-water marks in a wave pool. But because noise is a public health issue, it would seem that a just society should at least try to know as much about it as possible.
"Sound is always fleeting. It’s here one moment and it’s gone the very next moment," says Dr. Tae Hong Park of New York University's Music and Audio Research Laboratory. Dr. Park and his colleagues have set out to buck the cursory nature of sound in order to make highly accurate, real-time sound maps of cities. Their technology is called CityGram, and it aims to use a network of acoustic sensors to gather data that "can then be used for soniﬁcation and visualization."
One problem Dr. Park and his team face is the sheer ubiquity of sound—it's everywhere. Having a few dozen acoustic monitoring stations dotted around a city as big as New York is barely any more effective than having one schmuck walk around with an $18 decibel meter and a notebook. To overcome this, CityGram wants to piggyback on an acoustic technology of the past. "What we suggested is repurposing the pay phones in the city," he says.
The New York Department of Technology & Communications says there are 8,931 active public pay phones on New York's sidewalks, and Dr. Park proposes that these phones be equipped with monitoring nodes, which would then stream data to a server "where you can visualize exactly when, where, what kind of noise happens, in real time."
While the city currently has a plan to modernize these pay phones and turn them into WiFi hotspots, there is no telling whether they'd be open to throwing in some acoustic nodes while they're at it. I spoke with the office of New York Council Member Margaret Chin, who has introduced a bill that would call for the Department of Environmental Protection to install similar monitoring devices around the city (it's still in the early stages, the bill has yet to have its hearing—pun not intended but unavoidable, unfortunately). They are aware of CityGram, but any further connection between the two is, at the moment and as far as I know, contained to my daydreams about playing municipal matchmaker.
There are government-run sound maps that already exist, albeit on a much smaller scale. The Port Authority has a neat one that, unlike almost all other sound maps, is not static. It tracks dozens of noise monitoring terminals located along flight paths and matches that data to the movement of aircraft overhead. You can watch it in action here. It isn't quite real-time, though, as it runs at a 21-minute delay for "aviation security reasons."
The Port Authority says that people who live under these flight paths can use the website as proof when filing a noise complaint. This seems like it would be difficult, however, considering the government-mandated limit of 65 decibels for this kind of noise goes by a day-night average measured over a year, and the site's historical data is only available for up to 90 days.
Still, everyone else can use the site to watch the little airplanes flutter about the map and tickle the glowing circles, bringing their decibel readings to a boil. The loudest event I witnessed was 82db in Springfield Gardens, and it was made by a JFK-bound United Airlines 757 arriving from San Francisco.
Like my decibel meter, however, those noise monitoring stations are blind. Even though the flight data corresponded, it's not impossible that another source was responsible for that 82db reading. It could have even been an escaped cockatiel who flew away from its owner after she tried to record its shrieks for an Amazon review.
The benefit of CityGram, Dr. Park says, is that it would ideally be able to "automate the identification of sounds (e.g. car, horn, loud music, bell, screaming, etc.), and provide visualizations to display those types of information." In essence, it would provide a sort of closed captioning for the city's noise. Should this ever be fully installed, finding the loudest place in New York would be as easy as typing a query into Google Maps—you wouldn't even have to leave your computer to see how loud your burrito commute would be.
Even with the data he has collected to date, Dr. Park has no idea where the loudest place in New York is. He did mention that, because sound behaves differently in cities—"there isn't much earth or trees, and the reflection that occurs between the pavement and the buildings gives you the z axis"—an area like Union Square gets a lot of complaints from the 13th-20th floors. "Those people get that amplification. It’s almost like a chamber, you get that resonance. If there’s a kid riding his skateboard, doing all these jumps, you can hear that amplified 20 stories high."
Besides being like trash, to apartment-dwellers, New York's noise is like a gang of home invaders. Why look for noise when it so easily finds you? Finding a quiet place seems like it would be the sensible thing to do, assuming it's possible.
The Quietest Place In The World
The quietest place in the world is in Minnesota. There are lots of quiet places in that state, but this particular location is not in the woods or on a secluded lake. It's in the relatively noisy city of Minneapolis, inside a building that also houses recording studios and ringing telephones and flushing toilets and other loud things. The quietest place in the world is inside Orfield Lab's anechoic chamber, a room designed to completely absorb sound.
Besides being insulated from the outside, the chamber's interior walls are covered in a patchwork of wedges made from sound-absorbent material. These dissipate acoustic energy and swallow the waves up like Boba Fett in a Sarlacc Pit. The result is a supernaturally quiet environment. Highly advanced instruments recorded the sound inside to be -9.4dbA—far quieter than the human ear can even perceive. Compared to this chamber, two crickets chirping in the remote wilderness would sound like a howler monkey drag race.
As it turns out, complete silence can be terrifying. "How you orient yourself is through sounds you hear when you walk," says Steven Orfield, the lab's founder. "In the anechoic chamber, you don't have any cues." This results in maddening disorientation, and the longest anyone has been able to stay inside this particular chamber is for 45 minutes—and they had to be sitting down.
Inside these types of rooms, people have reported hearing the sound of their circulatory systems working and the mechanics of their lungs pumping. “In the anechoic chamber, you become the sound,” Orfield says.
Just as everything that is loud isn't necessarily noisy, a beyond-silent room is far from serene.
The Soundscape of a City
My office is 45dBA when no one is talking. While this isn't total silence, it's not quiet enough to drive me crazy, either. In fact, that 45dbA level seems to be a baseline of quietness in New York, and it's pretty nice, all things considered.
The quietest places in the city—in the middle of empty parks, along the East River's edge—didn't fall far below 45dbA on my meter. (I didn't bother checking a library. According to a Brooklyn public librarian I spoke with, libraries are far from the quietest places in New York, "especially during the after-school hours.") If pure nature, according to the National Park Service, is around 20dbA, then New York's inherent hum seems to be enough to really ramp that up, even in the city's more remote locations.
New York has some eight million people going about their noise-making business every day. Beneath all those feet churns the fourth-most expansive subway system in the world, and above all those heads is the second-busiest area of air traffic on earth. In chorus, all that activity should count for something, and I unscientifically attributed any readings in the city's "quiet areas" to it.
I asked NYU's Dr. Tae Hong Park about this hum, and whether it is a figment of my imagination, the result of a malfunction in my $18 decibel meter, or indeed something very real. "It’s impossible to know right now," he says. "Is there a New York City soundscape signature? My knee-jerk reaction is yes, but we haven’t proven it."
Dr. Park was born in Vienna, and he recently thought he remembered a unique "soundscape" from that city. "I went back 30-some years later to hear if I could find those same sound textures of the city and write a piece of music that reflects those," he said. "Remarkably, it sounded very similar to what I imagined. It was pretty amazing."
The piece of music he composed based on Vienna's soundscape is called "48 13 N, 16 20 O", and you can listen to it here. He hopes to use CityGram to transform New York's noise into musical endeavors one day, as well. If you can't beat it, join it.
The Quietest Place In New York
There also happens to be an anechoic chamber in New York, and it's located at Cooper Union's engineering department. I made repeated attempts to visit but, alas, they could not host me. It's a real shame; they have a slice of absolute silence in one of the loudest cities in the world and they won't share it with me.
In any event, my decibel meter isn't calibrated to measure below 30dbA, so it couldn't have told me much from inside the chamber. Plus, what if I didn't like the sound of my own blood flow? I know the pain of having an annoying song stuck in my head—I don't think I could handle knowing that a bad tune courses through my veins twenty-four hours a day.
Even without that anechoic chamber, I still wanted to find a way to shake that ubiquitous hum I so believed was following me around. If one of the reasons sound behaves the way it does in New York is because, as Dr. Park told me, "there isn't much earth," then I may have found the answer I was looking for: earth.
In SoHo, there's an art installation called The New York Earth Room by Walter De Maria. Essentially, it's a room full of dirt. A lot of dirt. 280,000 lbs. of it, covering 3,600 square feet of floor space and stacked 22 inches high. It's been open for free public viewing since 1980, ostensibly giving New Yorkers a respite from all the concrete and clamor outside.
If there was a quiet place in the middle of New York, then this would be it: A room full of hundreds of thousands of pounds of sound-absorbent material meticulously packed into a museum setting. My first attempt to visit was unsuccessful, as it was closed for lunch—apparently the keepers of the dirt take late lunches between 3:00 and 3:30 pm, so I returned right before it was set to close for the day.
The Earth Room is in a nondescript building on Wooster Street and, like all the apartments around it, you have to be buzzed in to visit. After you climb the stairs and step into the room, the first thing you notice is the smell. The air feels denser, as if it's hanging overhead, tightly packed but about to collapse.
There are wood floors and signs posted stating that photos aren't welcome. To view the expanse of soil, you have to walk to a small enclave with a thigh-high wall that holds it all in. The dirt spreads out over most of an entire floor of the building and it's a real sensory trip. It's extremely quiet, as if the dull smell's energy manages to shoulder out all the sound. It is exactly what I was looking for.
My meter read in the mid 30s—we finally shook the city's base hum. I had found relative silence...which was soon interrupted by giggles, followed by shrieks, and then some more giggles. The decibel meter quickly climbed to the high 50s.
I peeked around the outcrop that forms the viewing enclave. Behind it lies a small room with an information desk, and there I saw two exhausted parents attempting to corral their three children as they chased each other in the small space.
In case you were wondering, the quietest place I found in New York happens to be full of screaming kids. I'm glad, too—all that silence was starting to get on my nerves.