Around Town: Downtown's noise hardly sounds like music to the ears
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Can you hear that? Doesn't it drive you nuts?
Noise pollution may be an unavoidable fact of modern life.
There are the drivers so desperate for you to know how bad their taste in music is that they play their stereos at chassis-shaking volume.
There's the epidemic of cell-phone yakking that has proven this curious calculus: Hearing just half of an inane conversation is somehow twice as annoying as hearing each dolt in turn.
Then there's the cacophony of power mowers that begin shortly after dawn in neighborhoods incorrectly described as "quiet" by real estate agents.
Laws are on the books to protect ears from the sonic onslaught, but they seem to be enforced about as often as jaywalking ordinances.
Into this breach has ridden a man who, if not a voice crying in the wilderness (that would be too noisy), is a tireless seeker of calm. Don Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, lives Downtown and often bicycles through city neighborhoods.
Mr. Carter is an architect and knows buildings don't have to be detriments to civic life; they can enhance it. So the omnipresent noise of massive air-conditioning units is sending him straight up the wall.
City Council members Bruce Kraus and Theresa Smith-Kail have offered a preliminary draft of a new, more enforceable city noise ordinance to the city law department, which is reviewing it.
Meantime, I took a walk Monday morning to check out a couple of the Downtown spots Mr. Carter mentioned as the most offensive.
It's not as if any walk through the Golden Triangle can be a quiet one. The eternal North Shore Connector project means there will be drilling that never quite harmonizes with the sounds of buses and tractor-trailers. But I had to concede Mr. Carter's point that the incessant mind-numbing hum from the air-conditioning equipment below the sidewalk grates on Liberty Avenue at the Wood Street T Station represents a particular sonic hell.
Incredibly, I encountered a man standing atop the grates, pushing one hand into one ear and his cell phone into the other.
I walked from there to the Carnegie Library on Smithfield Street, to sup briefly from the oasis of quiet, and from there went around the corner to Strawberry Way.
There's a plaque on the wall of the AT&T building, on the north side of the alley, which describes music nobody can hear:
"The sound heard as you walk along Strawberry Way between Grant Street and William Penn Place is part of a public art installation designed to accompany the pedestrian experience of this space."
The plaque goes on to explain that a solar-powered audio amplifier and computer are piping in music through four speakers mounted on the wall of the building. The composition is "loosely adapted from Antonio Vivaldi's 'The Four Seasons.' "
Evidently, this has been playing since 2005, with the tune changing ever so slightly in rhythm with the day and the season -- but you have to take the plaque's word for it. Nobody can hear the music through what Mr. Carter aptly described as "the incessant roar from the top floors," where air-conditioning equipment does its loud work on warm days.
The building's sonic graffiti on its own sound sculpture may be the definition of irony, but it's not as if Downtown goes quiet once one leaves that stretch of Strawberry Way. On the walk back to the office, I heard the Fox business channel that is piped to the sidewalk from the televisions in the Regional Enterprise Tower, for reasons I'm not sure even Rupert Murdoch knows. I was then treated to the driver of the 41E riding his horn behind a car that was illegally motoring down the bus lane on Smithfield.
Vivaldi, that ain't.
About 4:30 p.m. Monday, I met Mr. Carter on Grant Street as idling rush-hour buses provided background music. He conceded that "sometimes it gets so noisy here you can't hear that" air-conditioning noise atop the AT&T building.
But after the buses pulled away, the static drone of skyscraper noise was again thrumming down the avenue.
Mr. Carter argues there are quieter alternatives for buildings such as these, ways to use acoustic separation and isolation, ways to minimize vibration. Not every noise problem can be solved, but we shouldn't add to the city's din.
For the record, I heard the Vivaldi sound sculpture on Strawberry Way on a cool day last September when the air conditioning was off. The music is lovely.
First Published August 3, 2010 12:00 am