by Marc Fisher

June 15, 2007

Like many people, I like noise, except when I don’t.

I love the buzz of a loud restaurant. I will buy from stores that feature particularly interesting or adventuresome soundtracks. But whenever I’ve had to move, I’ve gone to ludicrous lengths to make certain that my new location was reasonably quiet in the early morning, even staking out the streetscape in the pre-dawn hours to make sure no early buses or trucks rumble along my prospective home street.

I’ve infuriated some readers by defending bars and restaurants that pump loud music late at night, yet when I lived above a restaurant that dumped all its empty beer bottles in a crashing cacophony at 4:15 a.m. each day, it drove me nuts. I’ve ticked off some readers by defending wild-eyed, hatemongering and very loud street preachers who turn a city street corner into a very unpleasant place, yet I would happily endorse any efforts, legal or otherwise, to silence leafblowers, lawnmowers and wind chimes.

The Random Friday Question: How much noise is too much, and is there any useful way to define the dividing line between our freedom to make noise and our desire to live in peace and quiet?

There are activists like the District’s David Klavitter, who believe it’s only fair to place legal limits on the volume of street performers, protesters and the like, as part of the balancing that we must do between conflicting rights of those who want to send a message and those who want to be left alone. There’s even a national movement to limit noise. (Noise Free America has even gone so far as to declare Washington to be the “Capital of Noise.” I’m guessing they’ve never been to New York City or any American suburb featuring lots of lawns.)

I love their focus on leafblowers, barking dogs and car alarms. There’s no larger purpose involved in those noises–the people responsible for those noises are not making a statement, conducting a performance or creating a product. They are simply insufficiently careful about being part of a community.

But the anti-noise movement seems to put equal focus on silencing, or at least quieting, music in stores and outdoor venues, street hawkers and protesters, train horns, airport and grocery store announcements, and bands and deejays at bars and restaurants. That’s where they lose me: Those are purposeful sounds. You and I may not like them, but they are intended to draw a crowd, send a warning, communicate information or create a mood. We can choose not to frequent those establishments, or not to live near those eateries. They are part of what gives a community its character, whether that’s a busy urban entertainment district or a suburban strip mall or a sidewalk where people are trying to express their anger or frustration on some topic of public interest.

This distinction between noise that serves a function and noise that is merely inconsiderate works pretty well for me, except for one wild inconsistency–wind chimes. People put up wind chimes because they enjoy the sound. They consider it to be music and they believe no one could possibly be offended by gentle notes wafting through the air. The fact that they are wrong about this does not negate the fact that they are in some way trying to communicate with others, if only to express their joy. Yet I would happily see owners of wind chimes sentenced to some horrific punishment involving the repeated and extremely loud playing of “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band. (On second thought, I’m not sure that wind chime owners would necessarily mind this.)

Anyway, there’s my inconsistency. What’s yours–or have you found a consistent rule that works versus noise (short of an absolute ban on all public sounds)?