Media @ McGill

Lilian Radovac - The Muted City: New York, Noise Control, and the Reconfiguration of Urban Space

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In The Muted City, I present a socio-cultural history of noise control in New York City from 1933 to 2005.  I examine three distinct historical periods: (a) the mid-1930s, when, under Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the City of New York declared a “war on noise” that led to its first noise ordinance; (b) the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a major revision of this ordinance under Mayor John Lindsay led to the passage of a comprehensive noise code in 1972, and (c) the early 2000s, which saw a revival of anti-noise activism under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the subsequent adoption of a new noise code in 2005.  It is my contention that the heightened concern with noise that characterizes each of these periods reflects broader social anxieties about the disorganization of urban space.  In each case, noise is associated with moments of spatial instability that are catalyzed by processes of deindustrialization, changing patterns of immigration, and cycles of disinvestment and gentrification, which disrupt existing configurations of land use, and, by extension, the ways in which urban space is used by different racial, ethnic, and class communities.  My research shows that organized efforts to control noise closely correspond with changing relations of proximity between these communities, and, therefore, that accounting for the spatial dimensions of noise is an essential step toward deepening our understanding of urban sound cultures.  

My research is informed by the work of communications scholars who have approached noise as an object of critical social inquiry, including Emily Thompson, Karin Bijsterveld, and Hillel Schwartz.  My analytical perspective is drawn from sociologists whose work interrogates the cultural production of the senses and of sensibility, chief among them Pierre Bourdieu, Norbert Elias, and Jacques Attali.  My theoretical position is based on three core assumptions: firstly, I argue that the ways in which sounds are perceived are rooted in the social habitus of hearers, whose embodied dispositions predispose them to value or devalue sounds in markedly different ways (Bourdieu 1984).  Secondly, I approach sound as part of the contested terrain of a larger civilizing process that functions as a mechanism of social distinction based on increasing thresholds of revulsion (Elias 2000).  Thirdly, I hold that noise constitutes a form of violence which threatens to destabilize the spatial arrangements of late capitalist cities (Attali 1985), and, as such, that noise control legislation serves as a containment strategy that is primarily directed against socially and economically marginalized residents.  Therefore, I characterize noise control as an integral component of what Neil Smith terms “the revanchist city,” which seeks to cleanse urban areas of their prior associations with minority, poor, and working class communities (Smith 1996).

My dissertation is composed of three sections which broadly mirror the stages of North American deindustrialization.  In the first section, I present a historical account of New York’s first comprehensive noise ordinance, which was passed by the city’s Board of Aldermen in 1936.  Using newspaper reports and documents obtained from municipal archives, I reconstruct the narrative of events which led to the adoption of the ordinance and examine the role of the civic organization the League for Less Noise in bringing noise abatement to the forefront of a larger campaign of urban reform.  I ground this narrative in the city’s efforts to respond to the economic crises of the Great Depression and to fears of civil unrest that were aroused by working class and African American political activism (e.g. anarchist protests, labour strikes, the “Harlem Riot”).  I also explore these connections in relation to the 1929 Regional Plan, which attempted to reconfigure the racial, ethnic, and class composition of New York as it was formed through industrialization and to regulate the spatial practices that were associated with these communities.  I conclude by positing that La Guardia’s “war on noise” was part of a larger strategy of urban rehabilitation, the goal of which was to control the uses of urban space by socially undesirable inhabitants.

In the second section, I turn my attention to the post-war period and to the events that led to the adoption of the city’s first modern noise code in 1972.  Here, I examine the work of the Citizens for a Quieter City (CQC), whose archives I have researched extensively and whose role in bringing the code into being encompassed a broad program of municipal consultation, lobbying campaigns, book publishing, educational programs, and other forms of outreach.  From these, I identify the key themes of the movement, which centre on a fear of aural violence and assault and an overarching concern with the psychological anxieties produced by urban life.  As before, I locate these themes in the social context of the period, which was characterized by fiscal crisis, political protests, and “ghetto riots,” which some CQC members asserted were caused not by social or political factors but by excessive noise.  Further, I connect them to the implementation of the city’s Second Regional Plan, which laid the groundwork for the rezoning of industrial areas for commercial and middle class residential use and fuelled a longer-term process of gentrification.  I conclude by arguing that the 1972 noise code was disproportionately directed against the aural practices of poor and working class communities, and African Americans in particular, whose presence was viewed as an impediment to New York’s redevelopment.      

In the final section, I turn to contemporary noise control efforts and to the 2005 noise code.  Using interviews conducted with anti-noise organizations as well as groups which opposed the legislation, I examine the relationship between noise control and broader municipal efforts to recast the image of New York from that of a city in decline to one of a carefully managed centre of international finance and elite consumption.  Here, the spatial themes of the previous section resurface, but with an intensity that reflects the consolidation of processes of rezoning and gentrification that were supported by the Third Regional Plan and by massive flows of financial capital and real estate investment into the city.  Within this context, I approach noise control laws as an outgrowth of the “broken windows” approach to urban policing, which endeavoured to remove the vestiges of poor and working class spatial practices from newly-gentrifying neighbourhoods.  I conclude with a discussion of the Bloomberg administration’s anti-noise initiative “Operation Silent Night,” which specifically targeted many of these neighbourhoods as “high noise zones” and extended urban policing into the domain of sound.

Ultimately, the goal of The Muted City is to bring sound to the forefront of urban communications research, and, in so doing, to achieve three interrelated objectives.  The first is to account for the sociological dimensions of noise, which are rooted in economic inequality and masked by municipal quality of life discourses.  The second is to bring considerations of sound into the domains of urban theory and planning, which have suffered since their inception from a visual bias in their conception of spatial processes and practices.  The last is to use the concept of aural culture as a means of critiquing New Urbanist planning principles, which, by uncritically promoting the mixed-use development of urban areas, overlook the importance of aural diversity to the cultural health of cities.  If I am successful, then my project will contribute to an interdisciplinary dialogue about the social stratification of sensibility, which I hold to be one of the defining characteristics of late capitalist cities.