Volume 74, Number 22 | September 29 - October 5 , 2004

Villager photo by Jennifer Bodrow

Smokers outside a bar on Ludlow St. on Monday night.

New noise plan silent on smoking law’s impact

By Ronda Kaysen

If hell is other people, then Mayor Bloomberg’s noise law proposal has not solved the problem.

With smokers now relegated to the city’s sidewalks in the wake of the mayor’s 2003 smoking ban, their voices have drifted into neighboring apartments, causing many a sleepless night. To the dismay of residents, new noise legislation — also drafted by the mayor — does not address noise created by people, except in instances of disorderly conduct.

Who — if anyone — is responsible for the noise created by chatty smokers, and how (or if) these bar patrons’ volume can be regulated has yet to be addressed in the legislation. Bar and club owners, still reeling from the lost income following the smoking ban, fear that the new noise law, because of its subjective nature, will penalize them for attracting loquacious smokers. Residents, meanwhile, fear that no one will be held accountable at all.

“It’s an irresolvable problem that the city’s created,” said Robert Bookman, attorney for the New York Nightlife Association, of the noise pollution created by the smoking ban. “Short of [citing someone for] disturbing the peace, there’s nothing you can do about people out on the street. It gets into a difficult constitutional problem: you’re allowed to be on the street.”

The law addresses sound systems, not people, a protocol Bookman thinks penalizes club owners without resolving a main component of the noise problem, which is other people. “What’s the difference if the restaurant next to us has no sound system, but has open French doors and loud customers? Why are we in violation for having a sound system and they are not?” he said. “It’s another example of how they’re really not focusing in on the problem of noise on the sidewalk; they’re really focused on sound on the sidewalk.”

According to Bookman, 50 percent of all noise complaints to 311, the city’s non-emergency complaint hotline, are people reporting annoying neighbors, a dilemma not addressed in the new legislation.

Ivy Brown, a Meatpacking District resident and owner of the Meatpacking gallery Go Fish and photography agency One Naked Egg, has seen her neighborhood transform into one of the hottest nightspots in the city. Her five-unit building alone houses a wine bar, two restaurants and a bar and lounge. But all the new expensive sound systems and late night deejays have not been the source of Brown’s repeated 311 calls. The people lining up behind velvet ropes awaiting club entry and the smokers gathered on the sidewalk are the sounds that fill her Triangle Building apartment and studio. “There’s no break, it just becomes noise bouncing off noise bouncing off noise,” she said of all the voices.

According to the Mayor’s Office of Operations, complaints regarding noise from neighbors are consistently the second most common type of call to 311 citywide; in the East Village, complaints about noise in general account for the sixth highest number of calls to 311 — the single most common 311 complaint in the East Village from July 2003 to June 2004 was for establishments violating the smoking law.

For Village residents, the chatter of boisterous bar hoppers aggravates sleepless nights as much as the music playing inside the bars. “We have people hanging outside of bars, they talk, they make a lot of noise,” said Jean Standish, a 30-year E. Sixth St. resident. “The bars close and then we have these drunken people hollering and screaming up and down the street.” According to Standish, the smoking ban “exacerbated” an already frustrating situation.

Mark Hatalak, an E. Seventh St. resident, has lost many nights’ sleep to New Yorkers out on the town. “You’d like to get some sleep,” he said. “You get frustrated, especially when you’re sleeping soundly. Your whole day is shot.”

People smoking on the street have not translated to an increase in complaints to 311, according to Jordan Barowitz, a spokesperson for Mayor Bloomberg. “You see people on the street smoking, they’re making some noise, but they’re not making enough noise to generate a noise complaint,” he said. “If the people outside the bar do generate enough noise that it is disrupting the peace, then the police can address it.” If a specific individual is responsible for the noise — such as someone shouting — then that individual will be cited, according to Barowitz. He did not clarify, however, who would be cited if the volume of the group as a whole causes the disruption.

City Councilmember Margarita Lopez disagrees with Barowitz’s claim that there has been no increase in noise complaints for people talking on the street since the smoking ban. “There has been an increase in calls to 311 for noise,” she said. “Where do you think it is coming from, Virgin Mary in the sky? Please.”

A few well-placed citations to noisy bar hoppers may remedy the situation, says Hatalak of E. Seventh St. “If there’s some real enforcement where one or two people get ticketed, people will start to keep it down and it will make life a lot easier,” he said.

The threat of that actually happening has bar owners bracing for another hit to their businesses. “They’ve forced us to put our customers out on the street and now we’re going to be penalized for it,” said Sandee Wright, owner of the Whiskey Ward on Essex St. “It’s going to open up a way for them to shut a lot of us down.”

As the mayor’s proposal currently reads, law enforcement officials will be able to cite violators for “plainly audible” sound based on their own judgment, not on the reading of a sound level meter. Bar owners fear that although the law does not specifically ban people from talking on the street, a zealous inspector may cite a bar for loud smokers and, because there is no way to officially measure the noise, the bar owner will be unable to challenge the citation.
Some residents think that citing the bars is the best way to solve the problem. “Bar owners aren’t taking responsibility for the

areas in front of their bars and they could do that,” said Standish. “They should be penalized for loud crowds on their sidewalks. They’re terrible neighbors.”

If nothing else, the smoking ban has increased animosity between bar owners and residents, and it is unclear whether the new noise legislation will alleviate or exacerbate the problem. “[The smoking ban] has helped create an antagonistic environment between the community and the clubs,” said Bookman, attorney for the Nightlife Association. “The music has never been a big problem. I can count on my hands the number of times an establishment has gotten a repeat violation for music.”

Councilmember Lopez worries the noise legislation will make criminals of smokers. “If you push smokers into the street, the conversations are going to turn into a crime,” she said. “We are becoming a city in which civil liberties and entitlements are being eroded.”

Instead of increased legislation, Lopez suggests communication. “If we are going to talk about noise and we are serious about it, then we need to educate people about respecting people’s space.”

The mayor’s new noise proposal will be reviewed by the City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee this fall and City Councilmember James Gennaro, chairperson of the committee, expects the legislation to undergo extensive changes before it is written into law. “People have a right to be on the street,” he said. “However, we must do everything we can to protect the peace and repose of our communities.”

Wright of the Whiskey Ward is apprehensive that the new legislation will be manageable. “I’m a nervous wreck because I have to worry about what happens out on my street rather than what’s happening in my bar,” she said.

For Wright, the problem reaches beyond smoking or noise. “[The Bloomberg administration] is on a mission to close the city down early and quiet everything up,” she said.

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