Can you hear me now? | First Person | Indy Week
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Can you hear me now? 

"Like the beat, beat, beat of the tom-tom ... Like the drip, drip, drip of the raindrops"
--Cole Porter, "Night & Day"

The "beat, beat, beat" pulsed through my bedroom wall without the familiar lyrics. It was 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jamaican-Me-Crazy Night at the Uptown Club 50 feet from my ear on West Main Street near Five Points in downtown Durham. I tried visualizing ocean beaches to calm myself, I put in a new set of earplugs, but nothing tamed the incessant bass thuds. The "thump, thump, thump" was not "de-lovely."

After anger, my first thought was--why am I hearing this? This noise had to travel through brick, stone, wood and sheet rock to reach my bedroom.

Noise comes from the Latin word nausea, or seasickness. Tomorrow I would have a sick headache, a hangover from a bar I never entered. More than tomorrow's headache, I felt the thumps like blows assaulting my body. Inside my ears, they were killing sensory tissue. Once destroyed, these hearing mechanisms become useless forever.

Likely I already have some hearing loss, as noise pollution is everywhere. Exposure to noises greater than 100 decibels (typical sound levels for a loud bar or an action movie) can cause damage in less than one hour. Fifteen percent of school-age children already have hearing loss, often from playthings that make sounds; some of this loss begins in infancy. Since these cells deteriorate normally with age, the damage caused by noise pollution makes age-related hearing loss even worse. Hearing loss is increasing most in teens to 40-year-olds, as experts now estimate that 30 million American children and adults are exposed to dangerously loud noises on a regular basis. It is a good time to invest in companies making hearing aids, as millions of them will soon be sold to 40-year-olds with 70-year-old ears.

Four years ago I returned to Durham, bought a building downtown and remodeled it to live in. I believed the enthusiastic vision for downtown, where a small but growing residential neighborhood exists. The city encouraged me. Naively, I expected this same local government to be supportive. So far, the city hasn't protected or supported quality of life for investors who made costly rehabs to live downtown. Outside the loop, the city is supportive. Regulations prohibit clubs adjacent to residential use and gives developments a variety of protections. Two big downtown projects, American Tobacco and West Village, have safeguards not given to smaller residential developments within the downtown loop.

I love living downtown, and for the previous 30 years have lived in other central cities. Compared with Seattle and Washington, D.C., Durham is tranquil. I have never heard gunshots and seldom hear fire trucks or police sirens. If the club noise didn't exist, my home would be quieter than one in the suburbs, where power tools screech and whir as manicuring grass becomes a weekend sport. Who has the "baddest" riding mower? (The nonprofit organization Noise Pollution Clearinghouse has a national "Quiet Lawns Project." They rate noise levels for lawn mowers on their Web site at

Until the Uptown, now the Club Bounce, invaded my home 10 months ago, I had not concerned myself with noise pollution. The subject garners little national press. Scum on polluted water produces a dramatic photograph, and we can see the orange haze of foul air. Yet noise is a regional problem, as our state has spent more than $35 million to try and block the roar of traffic. A quick Web search reveals a staggering number of news articles about noise pollution, ranging from the Tennessee legislature's debate on banning boom box noise in rural areas to the bans on leaf blowers in more than 60 municipalities. But reporting mainly covers complaints and litigation about amplified music, as noise pollution becomes an in-your-face urban problem. Just as the noise damage accumulates over time, the tolerance of loud noises decreases over time. Individuals turn to the courts for remedies; citizens protest to local governments. Wilmington, N.C., has an ongoing war in their downtown between new condo owners and clubs that amplify music, especially those with outdoor bars that operate with heat lamps throughout the cold months.

Unfortunately, revisions to noise control ordinances are meant to quell citizen protests rather than produce a more healthy community. In Durham, there has been little public discussion of noise, and the city's awareness of the problem seems nonexistent. Durham's noise ordinance has comforting words about noise protection but is rarely enforced. In Durham Ordinance Section 11-1, the city prohibits "the playing of any radio, phonograph or any musical instrument in such a manner or with such volume, particularly during the hours between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., as to annoy or disturb the quiet, comfort or repose of persons in any dwelling, hotel or other type of residence."

One of my neighbors, distraught by the loud music keeping her awake, went to the club door at midnight and told them, "The party noise is in my bedroom. I can't sleep, so I came to join the fun." The security guard turned her away. The police in many cities simply don't want to enforce a noise ordinance because it is a "lesser" crime. Durham police responded three times to my many calls. Each time the officers said, "Clubs are exempt from the noise ordinance." Frank Duke, Durham's planning director, wrote me that this was an error "as a nightclub permitted does not permit the nightclub to violate the City Noise Ordinance." In effect, Duke told me that nothing in the planning and permitting processes protected my considerable investment from noise, and he passed the buck to the police, a unit he does not supervise. Our health and our investments are being damaged by pollution that no one wants to acknowledge, much less abate.

Other cities are getting tougher on damaging noise. Unfortunately, my experience tells me that Durham isn't even thinking about the problem. The city doesn't seem to be considering even the most common noise pollution--leaf blowers. Durham's ordinances give little relief, for these screeching machines are exempt from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. as long as they are "properly equipped with the manufacturer's sound reduction equipment." Yeah, right!

If our city expects to achieve a healthy city, much less a vibrant downtown, then it could follow the good models of other cities. New York City has proposed a major overhaul of its noise code to focus on quality of life. One of the areas of focus is more practical regulation of sound from commercial music establishments such as bars and nightclubs, especially "intrusive bass-level music and vibrations."

Seattle has a citywide noise abatement program. One familiar to Durham is college student party noise. According to David George, who administers Seattle's program, they have dealt with University of Washington students who party on weekends "late into the night, drinking, urinating in public, howling at the moon and playing loud music" by adding a "party house section" to their public disturbance ordinance. George reports that the law is "easier for the police to enforce, and they do."

Downtown Seattle, birthplace of grunge music, was notorious for its loud outdoor concerts. Nearby neighborhoods and hotels grew very weary. With the cooperation of concert promoters, George now establishes sound levels for each concert and works with sound technicians to locate speakers and control transmission of music by wavelengths so the music does not travel out to the surrounding neighborhoods. The concert contract, co-written by the noise abatement office, includes noise levels stated objectively along with the monetary penalty if those levels are exceeded. Most importantly, a computer is set up to display and document the noise levels during the concert so "I didn't know" can no longer be an excuse.

San Francisco nightlife thrives; its clubs are open until 4 a.m. If I lived there, I probably would be able to sleep with a club next door because the city is proactive about disturbing noise. It has an Entertainment Commission to promote "vibrant late-night entertainment," but in a balance with the "needs of residents and businesses in the vicinity of these establishments." Stringent amplified music soundproofing requirements govern the permitting of all clubs, and the commission has a staff "sound technician" to assist them. Club owners object to the cost of these tough requirements, but compared to the financial damages that could accrue through personal injury lawsuits for sleep derivation or loss of business and property values, soundproofing seems cheap.

The old solutions for soundproofing were to either physically isolate the source or to amass intervening material to absorb sound waves. Now, controlling amplified music via individual sound waves is possible. Most importantly, new soundproofing products/systems can abate and eliminate urban noise pollution. Modern viscoelastic layers in panels and blankets and more efficient isolation clips and seals are all available. Durham could require soundproofing any walls anywhere in the city that are susceptible to traveling noise and inspect for compliance.

Noise is not merely about volume. Traveling sounds, especially thumping bass waves, have been elusive to control, but now tools and products exist to abate these noises at the source. Controlling traveling nightclub music using building codes that recognize new techniques and materials, and contracts for amplification and monitoring compliance, are feasible now. My neighbors and I are medically sleep-deprived by hours of tortuous thumping from one club; meanwhile the citywide noise pollution grows. We could have our music, our manicured lawns, our sleep and our health, if we were smart about it.

Sally Schauman is professor emerita of landscape architecture and urban design at the University of Washington and is teaching at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.


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