More Than a Little Night Music
[New York Times,
15 January 2006]
By RICHARD MORGAN
He lives in Weehawken, N.J., but Heathe St. Clair is kept up nights by noise on the Lower East Side. Mr. St. Clair, the owner of the Sunburnt Cow, a bar on Avenue C and Ninth Street, keeps his cellphone by his bed when he sleeps. His employees have his number; so do all the tenants in the apartments above the bar -- and anyone else in the neighborhood who would like him to be held accountable for noise at his establishment.
Mr. St. Clair, a cheery 37-year-old with bright blue eyes, did get a complaint on New Year's Eve, but it was his first since April. One reason may be that besides cowprint stools and cushions, the Sunburnt Cow has heavy theatrical curtains to muffle the noise from inside.
In addition, Mr. St. Clair said, he lowers the volume of the music around 11:30 every night and is painstakingly attentive to noise he inflicts upon his neighbors. He has learned the hard way: $10,000 in fines that began with 13 calls to 311, the city's complaint number, most of them anonymous.
''I don't blame people for being up in arms about the music and noise,'' Mr. St. Clair said the other day as a shipment of pineapples arrived at the Cow, a bar that has the air of a lush cabana in Key West. ''But these people went out 15 or 20 years ago and partied hard. Now they're older, they don't like it so much, and they want to make Manhattan as quiet as Jersey. You can't have that. This is the city that never sleeps.''
Mr. St. Clair's preoccupation is a common one in this hip neighborhood. If the Victorian mansion is the symbol of Tottenville, and the art gallery the signature of SoHo, then noise, especially throbbing bar music, is the calling card of the Lower East Side. Guitars and amplifiers, often lugged by Converse-wearing hipsters, dot the area, and its main economic engine is the 400 bars and lounges that swell with music nightly.
Many local residents bridle at the noise. In November, more than 250 gathered to protest local loudness, and they have set up an antinoise Web site, www.toomanybars.org, which was under construction Friday.
Their needs were answered in part last month, when, in an overhaul of the city's noise code, the maximum sound level for bars and nightclubs was lowered to 42 decibels from 45 when measured inside a nearby residence. A commercial fan on low speed, by comparison, registers about 42 decibels. Police officers, who have often relied on their own ears to determine whether nightclub noise is unreasonable, will be armed with more and better noise meters.
But perhaps the most noticed change in the code, which will not take full effect until July 2007, is that it includes applies to bass music, that thumping undertow, felt less in the eardrum than in the gut, that is a staple of many post-Woodstock songs.
Some residents, like Rebecca Moore, a 37-year-old musician with straight dark hair and a Bohemian look, are pessimistic about the prospects of more quiet.
''I wish the noise codes would help me, but I don't feel much hope about that,'' said Ms. Moore, who lives at Orchard and Stanton Streets and is a local antinoise leader. ''I literally have six bars surrounding my building.''
A ''constant oscillation of solid noise'' typically lasts until 5 a.m., she said. ''If it isn't a car parked blasting bass and music, it is a crowd that exits one bar and just stands yelling out on the street and screaming and hollering. Then they go inside, and the door gets held open at another bar while a live band plays so the music comes blasting out. Then the bar next to that begins blasting music with their iPod parties. Even with the doors all closed, the bass totally permeates down the entire street.''
Ms. Moore is herself a violinist, but she quit doing gigs at some bars. ''I couldn't look my neighbors in the eye,'' she explained.
The local hero in all this may turn out to be Deputy Inspector Dennis DeQuatro, the burly commanding officer of the local Ninth Precinct. With a bass-heavy voice himself, Inspector DeQuatro went to the precinct a few months ago from Chelsea, where he brokered peace between nightclubs and residents, and he said he planned to make noise a top priority on his new assignment.
''It would be foolish to assume we could turn the bars or streets into a monastery,'' he said. ''But how do you put a price tag on a good night's sleep?''
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