My first visit to New York provided an initial insight. We arrived in the afternoon on a very hot day. The taxi that took us from JFK to the Upper Westside was air-conditioned in the old fashioned way. Blasts of warm air flooded through its open windows as we swung around intersections. The worn sound of the engine was the driving force, but the pressure of the horn was our lance and we jousted through the city in a bout of noise, heat and motion. Our drop-off point was a simple fifteen storey 1930s brick apartment block on West End Avenue. A Manhattan block has its own particular sound in the summer. The dry heat has a dampening effect on the constant dirge of traffic. An insect-like hum emits from hundreds of exterior air-conditioning units and drips of condensation from their underbellies pepper the sidewalk. Sirens in the distance, maybe half a mile away, provide a feint harmony to those screaming past. Rushes of amplified music wax and wane as doors open and close. But above all of these sounds is the sound of the human voice. New Yorkers seem to have developed a tonal intonation that can cut through the bass sound of the city. Their voices can always be heard, and they are often exercised. It is a city of confident communication – much more so than any other I have been to.
I found it hard to settle on that first night. Not because the noise was preventing me from sleeping. I didn’t need sleep. Fuelled by the sounds emitting from the street, my adrenalin levels were high, and I wanted to stay connected to the source. I spent most of the night by the tenth storey window listening to the city continue to emanate. Just as I finally began to doze off, a hallucinatory vision appeared outside the glass – a personification of everything I had experienced that day – welcoming me, but warning me to sleep, to get some rest. The city is not going anywhere. There will be more of the same tomorrow.
The above extract is the introduction to a longer essay, “Noise:Silence – The Battle for New York City’s Soundscape”.