by Michael Gartland


August 4, 2002

Windows vibrate, a car chassis rattles and the ground seems to shake. This is not a low-grade earthquake, nor is it a passing 18-wheeler. It’s bass. The young men in the red sports car coolly nod their heads to the beat. In the trunk, the speakers boom. It’s thick and gut-wrenching, and it draws attention from the teens chilling in front of Starbucks on Main Street in Islip. For some, this is aural wallpaper, a fixture on a Friday night. Brian Connor, 16, of East Islip, who rides a dirt bike, said it’s what he’ll be aiming for when he gets his classic muscle car. His advice for those who don’t like the racket: “Close the windows and put the volume up on the TV.” Connor said the cars with the booming stereos drive down Main Street every couple of minutes. Nearby residents concur, but with less enthusiasm.

For some in Islip, the heavy beats are a nuisance that has become more pervasive over the last four years. According to police officials across Long Island, complaints about noisy stereos have increased markedly this summer as opposed to the other seasons. In Nassau’s First Precinct, which covers Baldwin, Roosevelt, Uniondale, Merrick and Bellmore, the calls come in every day. In Suffolk’s First, which covers Babylon, cops have had to saturate problem areas on the weekends to keep the noise to a minimum. “It’s not peculiar to this area as far as I can tell,” said Jim Cascio, 55, a resident of Islip’s Main Street for seven years. The noise, he said, can be heard at stoplights in several places in Suffolk County at any given time. Not only does he find it bothersome, Cascio, a jazz fan, describes it as dangerous as well. “They are tremendously loud and they are tremendously annoying,” he said. “They make it so you can’t hear traffic.”

Summer is the worst. With car windows open, annoyed residents say, the music is louder. In Hempstead Village on Perry Street, some residents describe it and its enthusiasts as so menacing they’re too afraid to ask for the volume to be lowered. “I don’t dare go outside and say anything,” said Irene, 70, who wouldn’t give her last name for fear of retribution. A resident of Hempstead her whole life, she said the music’s volume has increased noticeably the past two years. She attributes it to a more youthful population and said that although it’s been a hardship, she understands the impulse. “I like my neighbors, and I don’t plan on moving,” Irene said. “Everybody has to have their party time. As long as it doesn’t keep me awake, have fun.”

Increasing volume levels, say stereo retailers, are a result of developing technology and the growing popularity of more bass-heavy music. One store owner characterized it as a fad, one he hopes will pass. “It’s from the hip-hop, the rap music,” said Al Caracciolo, the owner of Best Way Sound and Security in Farmingdale. “They see this in the videos and they’ve got to have it.” Bass-heavy sound systems come at a high price. Typically, teens will spend around $1,500, Caracciolo said, adding that people spend up to $6,000 for them. While soundproofing is available, he said it would defeat the purpose. “They want other people to hear this,” he said. Technology isn’t helping. Each year car stereo manufacturers release systems specifically designed to give a more pronounced bass response, Caracciolo said.

The designers aren’t making illusions as to why people buy their products, either. Some, such as Sony, with its “Disturb the Peace” ad campaign for sound systems, have marketed car audio equipment for its potential anti-social quality. Noise-pollution groups blame the advertising. A Noise Free America member said that though car stereos have been a problem since at least the late 80s, their effect has worsened due to new technology and aggressive marketing. Les Blomberg, the director of the nonprofit Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt., agreed. “They’re marketing incivility and rebellion. It’s portrayed as sexy and powerful. It’s co-opting youth rebellion,” Blomberg said. “I’m willing to cut young people slack, but the people I’m not willing to cut slack to are the corporations.” A Sony spokeswoman said its message was meant merely to appeal to an 18- to 24-year-old male demographic. “The ad campaign doesn’t speak to the way our products are developed anymore,” said Rachel Branch, a spokeswoman for Sony Electronics.

Blomberg said that local ordinances limiting car stereo volumes have been a help. Recently, he said, the most common additions to existing noise laws have been car stereo amendments. In Islip, the laws are already on the books, but as Officer Michael Malone can attest, they do not always work as a deterrent. For police in patrol cars, the problem is also a matter of being able to catch someone in the act. Because the problem is transient in nature, police have difficulty in tracking and stopping offenders, who always have the ability to simply turn the volume down when they spot a cop car. And though some residents of Perry Street in Hempstead wish police would do more to make the sounds subside, they acknowledge the problem’s relative importance. “I know we have a very good police force here,” said Judith Dodson, 58. “But they can’t be everywhere.”