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Noise Not Something You Can Shrug Off

Tom Condon

April 17, 2011

I lived in Hartford's Asylum Hill neighborhood in the 1980s, in a renovated red brick "perfect six" condo that was gorgeous. I had great neighbors, I loved jogging to Elizabeth Park, walking to work, being close to downtown. But with marriage and a family looming, I reluctantly decided to move.

One reason was the declining condition of West Middle School, at the end of my street. The venerable school Katharine Hepburn went there was struggling, and my empathy for it stopped short of sending my kids there. True, I could have stayed a few more years until the kids were, say, born, but there was another reason to leave. The neighborhood had worn me down. I'd had a couple of break-ins and other hassles. But the constant irritant, the stone I couldn't get out of my shoe, was noise.

Car horns at all hours. Cars and pedestrians with thermonuclear boom boxes. Unattended car alarms. The guy next door who worked on his motorcycle at midnight and thereafter. I left when I did because the noise was keeping me awake. I began to think noise was bad for my health.

So, two follow-up developments.

The first is the good news that West Middle is becoming a "community school," a model that brings community and student services together at the school such things as health services, library and parent programs. The school board and the Asylum Hill community residents, churches, corporations, the Boys & Girls Club and others are trying to convince the city council to renovate the aging school building. I hope they can do it; community schools are a good fit for Hartford.

Also, it turns out my issues with noise weren't all in my head. For this I'm indebted to my colleague Bill Weir, who reported a week ago on research which suggests noise may be related to health problems beyond hearing loss.

Yale researcher Peter Macgarr Rabinowitz observed that living in a noisy place is stressful he could have saved some research dollars by spending a summer weekend at my old condo and that chronic stress may be a risk factor for conditions such high blood pressure and cardiac disease. Other researchers agree.

Here's the kicker. Paul Bloom, who teaches psychology at Yale and is the author of "How Pleasure Works," has said that constant noise is one of the few things we never get used to. If there's long-term construction around your home, he said, your happiness drops and it doesn't come back unless the noise goes away. No kidding. I think we can get used to a mild level of background noise, but not constant loud noise.

Because the dangers of excessive noise aren't widely known, people, myself included, always seem to learn the hard way. There was the case in Hartford almost a decade ago when a Mister Softee ice cream truck used to park in one place for hours and play the same songs over and over (forever ruining "The Entertainer" for anyone within earshot).

There's a reason that torture so often involves noise; it works. Mr. Softee drove residents nuts. Eventually they dragged the owner into court. Hartford Community Court Judge Ray Norko left the bench, went out and listened to the truck, then ordered the owner not to play music more than half an hour after sunset, to keep it at an acceptable level and not play any tune more than six times before changing it or moving to a new location. It was a good day for the rule of law.

In the suburbs, people often discover the negatives of noise when they move near an airport or, especially, a highway. Maybe they looked at the house in the dead of winter, on a state holiday? Then in the summer, they feel like Woody Allen's family in "Annie Hall" who lived under the roller-coaster on Coney Island. As Weir reported, there's a bill in the legislature to build a sound barrier along part of the Wilbur Cross Parkway in North Haven to protect residents from the constant roar and rumble.

The bill isn't likely to pass. Barriers cost $1 million a mile and don't always work. You town planners out there might want to think twice about allowing residential construction next to limited access highways. Smart growth, it ain't.

There's a reason that "peace and quiet" are so often paired, and that someone long ago thought "Silence is golden." Noise can be a major nuisance, or worse. Health officials ought to be getting the word out. I have begun to experience hearing loss in the past few years. Could it have been the motorcycle

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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