The archaeology of noise, or the work is never done

By Daniel Meltzer

In the beginning there was the horse. It ate hay, processed it, clippity-clopped, neighed and nickered. Not terribly noisy, but it left a noisome trail on our streets. Street vendors shouted, fire trucks (horse-drawn) had bells. Policemen had whistles.

With the internal combustion engine came the rumble of motorcars, buses, trucks, police cars, motorcycles, the hook and ladder. The horn was born, the siren, then other sirens and other horns (the “a-oo-ga” horn, “happy birthday” and so on). Soon came the high-whining, multi-decibel garbage truck, then the once-a-week BIG truck that chews couches and grinds up bookshelves, hefts dumpsters to the sky and then slams them, steel on steel, against the vehicle’s roof to bang out their contents, often at ungodly hours, under your bedroom window. And we all know the tractor-trailer that scrapes its rusty, apartment-size dumpster curbside, then scrapes it back onto its truck bed a day or a week later, filled to overflowing with wallboard, kitchen cabinets, bricks, beams, old refrigerators and washer-dryers.

Along the way we got the boom box, and it’s big brother, the mobile ghetto blaster — the Lexus with no trunk space but megawatts of amp and speaker power; and the multi-sonic auto alarm, calibrated to ward off car thieves and any hobbling senior walking too close with a pacemaker. All to the constant underscoring of the jackhammer, and the asphalt- and eardrum-ripping rotary pavement saw. If that weren’t enough, we were given the cell phone, into which everyone around you is now shouting to be heard over all of the above.

In the 1980s, paying reasonable rent was no longer cool, a view enthusiastically supported by realtors and indolent landlords wondering when all this sitting around doing nothing (except to deposit the rent checks at the bank or to exercise their atrophying muscles at the gym) was going to pay off. And with jobs emigrating and Americans weary of working for a living in general — their hard- (or hardly) earned cash sitting there doing nothing (like landlords) — along came Ronald Reagan and his Ownership Society. Buy your apartment, wait a year, sell it, buy a bigger one, wait another year, buy another, sell it and before you know it… . Sure beats getting dressed in the morning and schlepping to the office.

Soon a forest of glitzy (and not-so-glitzy) co-op and condo buildings shot up all over town, and they are still rising, eating what is left of our sky and trapping exhaust fumes below as streets became canyons.

Forget the mortgage crash. This isn’t about that. It’s about the never-ending construction and renovation of all those co-ops and condos and “luxury buildings,” many without doormen, many without real lobbies even, some without elevators or decent plumbing, being the same old buildings, after all, with new windows and sinks, a coat of paint inside and scrubbed facades outside. If there is a block in Manhattan today where something is not going up, coming down or getting worked over, I want to know about it.

Dumpsters coming and going, jackhammering, riveting, drilling, cement-mixing and all the shouting among the crew, day in, day out. I can testify anywhere, under oath, that a year has not passed on my own little block in more than two decades during which demolition, construction or renovation of a building, co-op, condo, or rooftop penthouse was not underway, that a sidewalk bridge to protect pedestrians from falling bricks or bricklayers did not shadow a good portion of the pavement.

To quote the late, great Raymond Carver: “Will Everyone Please Be Quiet Please?” I can hear your response forming now; “Hey, it’s New York, get over it.”

Not quite at the level of Guantanamo noise torture, perhaps. But getting there, and definitely longer lasting. I know what’s coming — “Be real. New York is ABOUT noise, it’s part of its character, its charm, its mojo, its raison d’être, what makes it ‘the greatest city in the world.’ If I don’t like it here, why don’t I move to Omaha, or to Carefree, Arizona, or Canada.”

Here’s why: It’s about the bagels, the belly lox, health food, food in general, the Metropolitan (Museum and Opera), all the other museums, friends, family and great conversations. Central and Riverside parks, the Film Forum, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and those wonderful public libraries.

“Hey, it’s about building the future,” we are also told.

Hey yourself. Am I the only one here who knows he is not going to live another 80 years to enjoy the fruits of this brave new world when they finally finish building New York and we can begin to hear ourselves think? Remember thinking? Think what you like and thanks for listening. And don’t slam the door on your way out.