What was the mysterious menace terrorizing America’s largest city? The plague that “has increased to a point beyond all reasonable tolerance,” according to one early observer? Noise. To be more precise, unnecessary noise, flung from cars and nighttime revelers, trucks and tourists. Reformers in Gotham City had grown tired of the urban din, and in the mid-1930s, their man in City Hall took it upon himself to silence the five boroughs once and for all.
La Guardia may have been Manhattan’s most prominent anti-noise activist, but he wasn’t the first. That distinction belongs to Julia Barnett Rice, a New Orleans-born debutante whose unique political career George Prochnik briefly profiles in his 2010 book “In Pursuit of Silence.” In many ways, Rice was an unlikely campaigner; after studying music and then medicine at Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, she married a successful corporate lawyer and started a family, raising six children inside the couple’s custom-built mansion overlooking the Hudson River on the Upper West Side. From their secluded perch at Riverside Drive and 89th Street, the Rice clan was insulated from all but the most thunderous downtown clatter. Tugboat horns, on the other hand, were a constant nuisance, particularly in the summer, when the couple propped open its many windows to let in fresh air. Rice didn’t think for a second that all of the toots she heard were actually preventing crashes.
In 1905, two years after moving into “Villa Julia,” Rice used her family’s wealth in a novel way, hiring six Columbia Law students to track the number of whistle blasts pouring up from the Hudson River each night. Their final report—which ran to 33 pages and included testimonials from both police officers and neighbors—charged that tugboat captains “murder sleep and therefore menace health,” shooting off their horns 2,000-3,000 times in a typical evening, often to greet passing ships or servant girls working along the river. It was just the evidence Rice needed. Because the waterway was under federal jurisdiction, the socialite took her report to Washington. With the help of her congressman, U.S. Rep. William Bennett, and letters from hospitals and patients about the health effects of errant noise, Rice convinced lawmakers to pass a bill regulating the “useless and indiscriminate tooting of sirens and steam whistles.” Boisterous skippers along the eastern seaboard would now face aggressive fines, all thanks to Rice.
Her advocacy had struck a nerve. At the turn of the 20th century, city dwellers were subject to more chatter than any population in history, and public health professionals were beginning to understand the severe risk excessive noise carries.* Audible disturbances were now a community problem, requiring a community response. Once the tugboat campaign earned some publicity, Rice was engulfed with letters of support from regular citizens and public officials alike; she realized that New York’s patrician class—eager to preserve its genteel way of life while paternalistically protecting the poor and infirm—was ready, in Prochnik’s words, “to extend the battle to an array of targets.” And so in 1906, Rice enlisted friends and acquaintances and launched the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, the world’s first anti-noise organization.
For two decades, the aristocrat fought day and night for a silent city, writing op-eds and pamphlets, enlisting the aid of prominent individuals, and urging local politicos to draft and update municipal bylaws. Data played a key role in her organizing—each new offensive was backed by an almost-maniacal amount of measurements. To be sure, there were some triumphs, like when Rice—with the help of Mark Twain—convinced thousands of New York schoolchildren to stay quiet while they walked by or played near hospitals. But the rise of the automobile complicated the society’s already difficult work, and their victories were ultimately modest. Prochnik contends that Rice’s determination couldn’t mask one core flaw in her position: “When it comes to noise, how do we tell the necessary from the unnecessary?”
That’s a question New York City’s health commissioner, Shirley Wynee, tried to answer conclusively after Rice’s retirement. In 1929, Wynee established the Noise Abatement Commission, a government-sponsored panel whose task was to quantify the problem of noise. Over the course of six months, staff members—most of whom were experts in science, engineering, or medicine—canvassed huge swaths of the city, using questionnaires, audio recorders, and a “roving noise laboratory” to gather sound level readings on the street and inside buildings. (The measuring truck alone covered over 500 miles, making 7,000 observations at 113 locations.) Once the voluminous data was organized, NAC members paired their results with scholarly reports detailing the impact of noise on concentration and productivity, publishing City Noise, a massive landmark study on the acoustical intensity of urban life.
What did the NAC find? Street traffic, elevated trains, and subways accounted for 52 percent of New York’s clatter, while construction work, automobile horns, and various other sources made up the rest. Like Rice, the existing medical literature also convinced members that exposure to constant loud noises could lead to hearing impairment, interfere with sleep, and reduce the efficiency of workers. In framing the problem, however, NAC took a different approach than its activist predecessor. As Lilian Radovac argues in her fascinating American Quarterly essay “The ‘War on Noise’: Sound and Space in La Guardia’s New York,” the commission considered unwanted sound a technological obstacle, one that could be solved (or at least muted) relatively easily by improving industrial design, reforming construction practices, informing the public, and updating the city’s noise ordinances. If New Yorkers want to “do away with unnecessary noise and reduce to a minimum such noises as are necessary,” the commission wrote, they can do so “if they are willing to take a little trouble.”
Initially, the recommendations embedded in City Noise landed on deaf ears. Even though his own administration completed the legwork, Mayor Jimmy Walker—immersed in a corruption scandal that would force him to resign—ignored the directives entirely. The issue only gained political traction when La Guardia, trying to establish his reputation as a reformer, stormed City Hall in 1934 and made noise reduction a priority.
La Guardia’s “War on Noise” was simple in conception. First, city officials, with the help of civic organizations and the police commissioner, would educate the public about what behavior they considered unacceptable—the unnecessary blasting of horns, for example, and attempts to call people to windows by shouting. Residents would then be urged to cooperate with their neighbors and ensure “noiseless nights.” For his part, the mayor made a series of personal commitments, assuring residents that “many miles of [elevated train tracks] will be torn down” and that cabarets in residential districts would be closed.*** He also set up a decibel machine in his own office so he could track the sounds lofting up from the street below. “Most of the city officials including Mayor La Guardia are shouting at the tops of their voices about how quiet everything is going to be when the metropolis gets its noiseless nights,” the Washington Post sarcastically noted that summer (August 17, 1935).
The second plank of La Guardia’s quiet campaign was legal. When the Republican took office, New York’s existing noise bylaws were a total mess—Radovac describes them as “a series of discrete clauses that had accrued over several decades in different sections of the administrative code”—so he signed various executive orders he hoped would serve as an adequate substitute until aides could convince the Board of Aldermen to pass a comprehensive anti-noise ordinance. One prohibited the use of political campaign trucks after 10:30 p.m, another allowed police to ticket any driver who sounded his horn after 11 p.m. The Noise Abatement Council, a non-profit organization that sprung up after the original NAC disbanded, dubbed this approach “Quiet by Fiat” (New York Times; May 19, 1934) and suggested that 75 percent of unnecessary noise could be eliminated by administrative orders alone. While their estimate was wildly optimistic, it’s clear the restrictions did make an impact initially. During the first four days of the drive, the NYPD issued over 5,000 warnings, and officers wrote more than 1,500 summonses by the end of 1935, a dramatic increase from the year prior. “Several of the more exasperating noises faded,” anti-noise activist Edward Peabody later told The New Yorker (November 22, 1941). “Cats induced to stop yowling, gravediggers laid off hitting the tombstones with shovels, etc.”
By the spring of 1936, La Guardia finally muscled through a revamped ordinance, one that banned 14 types of noise and greatly expanded the powers of the police. In one swoop, the administration’s focus shifted almost entirely from the preventative to the punitive. Those who played their radios too loudly or worked on construction projects at night, among others, would now face a graduated series of fines: $1 for the first infraction, $2 for the second, $4 for the third, and $10 for the fourth. (During the Depression, those tickets were not cheap.) Labor organizers, immigrants, and those reliant on the street-based economy—itinerant musicians, pushcart sellers, junkmen—were disproportionately targeted. In 1938 alone, 16,000 residents were ticketed for violations and another 293,000 were issued warnings. Like two Republican mayors who would follow in his footsteps decades later, La Guardia came to believe that enforcement was the most sensible way to tame the chaos of his hometown. Radovac offers a less generous interpretation; La Guardia, she writes, “conflated the everyday annoyances of city life with criminal acts.”
And in the end, the same enigma that beguiled Julia Rice frustrated La Guardia and his allies: when the line between “necessary” and “unnecessary” commotion is so fuzzy, it’s nearly impossible to convince people that excessive noise is a problem worth solving. Five years after the War on Noise began, Peabody complained that the public was apathetic and that “you couldn't say things are so hot” in his movement. In the 1940s and early 1950s, a coalition of executives from companies that manufactured soundproofing products organized “National Noise Abatement Week,” an annual education awareness campaign that was cynical in its formulation and lackluster in its execution. Eventually, noise pollution fell out of the headlines entirely. As one member of the group would admit to The New Yorker (May 15, 1948), “we feel in our heart rather hopeless about New York.”
*Via the CDC, hearing loss; sleep disturbances; cardiovascular and psychophysiologic problems; performance reduction; annoyance responses; and adverse social behavior.
**New McClure’s, 1928.
***”There is no reason why they should annoy the neighborhood with what they call music late at night” (AP; September 10, 1935).