Columbia University is releasing a report today showing that noise in 98 percent of the city's public spaces exceeds healthy limits. Researchers visited 50 sites in Manhattan that had been the source of complaints to the city's 311 hotline. Another 10 sites were visited because researchers were curious about them -- including Times Square where I work, and Union Square.
The results? 98 percent of them exceed 70 decibels -- a level considered likely to cause stress and elevated blood pressure.
I have to admit I've been fortunate: Noise has not been one of the many areas where I've had a difficult adjustment from the pastureland of the South to the hubub of the inner city. Part of it is blind luck: My apartment is on a lightly-trafficked street, it's located in the back of the building, and it's surrounded by larger buildings like The Dakota and the San Remo that absorb a lot of city sounds. Add to that the fact that the Upper West Side is much quieter than any of the Villages or Midtown, and you realize I'm living a sheltered life.
That said, there are coping mechanisms for the noise. The biggest is headphones. Eighty percent of New Yorkers on the street are wearing headphones. Sometimes huge noise-cancelling headphones that make them look like misplaced DJ's. In fact, headphones are a good way to differentiate tourists from natives as you're walking the streets. Tourists don't wear them, because they're worried about not hearing that car horn as they cross the street, or anticipate they're going to need to ask for directions repeatedly. Natives, in turn, don't want to have to give directions, or listen to a panhandler on the subway, so headphones are a useful coping mechanism.
One drawback, though, is that headphones make New Yorkers a little less social. Not that they were chatty Cathy's to begin with, but the advent of the Walkman and the iPod made it even less likely that New Yorkers would chat.
Do New Yorkers chat? Yes they do. Usually, however, it's when they're sharing a common experience, or common inconvenience. No cabs stopping to pick you up? You're likely to share your frustration with the guy next to you with his hand in the air. Service in the restaurant stink? You'll sharing a knowing nod and offhand snarky comment to the lady at the table next to you. Elevator stuck? You'll bet there will be conversation.
So the reduction of human interaction, coupled with 70-plus decibel street noise adds to residents' stress. That's a no-duh survey courtesy of our friends at Columbia, but it does motivate me to do my small part to de-stress New York.
Excuse me while I go hold a door for someone.