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In Providence, a Campaign to Crack Down on Excessive Noise

On the worst nights, when the thudding bass from a nearby nightclub rattled his windows and drowned out the sound on his TV, the noise in John Heaney’s home in Providence felt more like an intruder than a nuisance.

“It’s a true violation because you can’t stop it,” he said. “It’s like someone has a key to your house, and they can come in whenever they want.”

Driven to activism, Mr. Heaney, a retired software engineer, joined a small group of residents in the Rhode Island capital who have lobbied city officials in recent years to crack down on excessive noise. Their campaign, known as the Providence Noise Project, has won vocal support from Mayor Brett Smiley, a Democrat who took office last year. But it has also raised complicated questions about noise, including what to do when not everyone agrees it’s a problem, and how to fairly enforce limits.

Across the city of 190,000 — which is split by Interstate 95, a major source of noise — there is little consensus on the issue. In each of its compact neighborhoods, sirens wail, motorbikes buzz like angry insects, ice cream trucks shriek singsong melodies, and car stereos scatter staccato beats. Some people wince at the cacophony; others barely notice.

Similarly, while some see a clear path, driven by data, to change the behaviors that lead to noise complaints, others are wary, anticipating prejudice and racial profiling.

“People can use complaints to target communities,” said Erica Walker, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Brown’s School of Public Health who runs the university’s Community Noise Lab.

The lab took readings in 22 city neighborhoods two years ago and built a “noise map.” It found that the loudest neighborhoods are concentrated in southern Providence — the hub of the city’s Latino community, which has traditionally drawn immigrants from Puerto Rico, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.

In the Elmwood neighborhood on the city’s southern edge — one of the areas found to be noisiest — several groups of residents socializing outside on a balmy afternoon last month said that noise was not a problem there. Birdsong was easily audible, and traffic was light.

But around the corner on Hamilton Street, Adelino Ribeiro was dreading a spike in volume.

“Summer is the noisy one, believe me,” Mr. Ribeiro said as he planted flowers outside the home he shares with his mother, who called out instructions from the porch. “The music, the vehicles, all of it.”

Still, Mr. Ribeiro, 46, was not expecting any mitigation. “It is a part of life, and you get used to it,” he said with a sigh, as the buzz of an electric drill rose on the next block.

Such resignation is one of the things the leaders of the Providence Noise Project hope to change.

“A lot of people don’t like it, but they don’t think they can do anything,” said John Wilner, one of the group’s founders. “We’re saying it’s OK to complain.”

With a focus on the documented health effects of noise, the group has a catchy slogan — “Noise Is the New Smoking” — and a ready response to those whom they call “noise denialists.”

“Cities generally have much higher levels of air and ground pollution than suburban or rural areas, but no one says they should be allowed to burn their garbage or simply drop it on the sidewalk because ‘cities are dirty,’” reads one such rebuttal on the group’s website.

Across the country, noise has crept onto the list of hot public health concerns in recent years, as a growing body of research has linked chronic exposure to heightened risks of high blood pressure, heart attacks and stroke.

Since the pandemic lockdown of 2020 briefly stilled the din in many cities, calls for enforcement of noise limits have increased. New York City began installing noise-detecting cameras in 2022, and issuing tickets of $800 to $2,500 for violations recorded by the devices. Those cameras, which are activated in New York by sounds louder than 85 decibels, about as loud as a lawn mower, are becoming more common, popping up in Paris, Miami Beach, Knoxville, Tenn., and Newport, R.I.

It is hard to measure whether Providence is noisier than other cities of its size. A community satisfaction survey last year found housing, road conditions and school quality rated as bigger problems in Providence, but 40 percent of the 4,000 respondents said they were also dissatisfied with noise control. That, as well as the 5,600 noise complaints filed by residents in 2023, was enough to get the attention of Mayor Smiley.

The city of Tallahassee, Fla., with a population of similar size, had 3,900 noise complaints last year, according to its records administrator, about 30 percent fewer than what was logged in Providence. The Florida capital does not have noise cameras, but recently tweaked its noise ordinance to make enforcement easier.

“Part of the reason people like to live in Providence is the quality of life, and it’s important that we not lose that,” Mr. Smiley said in an interview. “It’s why people live here and not Brooklyn.”

The city prohibits noise that is audible 200 or more feet away from its source, and also limits noise to 55 decibels from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. in residential areas and from 2 to 7 a.m. in commercial and industrial areas, including downtown.

The two biggest sources of noise complaints are entertainment businesses such as bars and nightclubs, and vehicles outfitted with modified exhaust and stereo systems that make them louder than normal. Since the mayor budgeted money for hand-held sound meters, licensing officers have used them to measure decibel levels outside businesses. But the meters cannot track moving vehicles.

For that, Mr. Smiley is proposing noise cameras, which detect noise that exceeds legal limits and photograph license plates so that tickets can be sent to drivers. He has asked lawmakers to tweak state law to allow the cameras, which are currently prohibited.

Noise cameras in New York cost around $35,000 apiece; Providence officials say they haven’t nailed down the cost there, but have set aside $100,000 in their budget. Imran Dharamsi, a recent Brown graduate who has documented noise patterns in Providence, said the cost of the cameras may make it impractical to install them widely — and that could lead to unequal enforcement.

“If you target the loudest neighborhoods, then you’re disproportionately targeting the nonwhite community,” he said. “But if you scatter them everywhere, it might be a waste of resources.”

Mr. Smiley said he intends to distribute the cameras throughout all city neighborhoods.

To some advocates of noise reduction, that approach makes little sense.

“Providence should allocate its noise cameras equitably — i.e., in areas where vehicle noise is most prevalent or residents complain about it the most,” Mr. Wilner wrote in a recent letter to The Brown Daily Herald. “It should not put them in quiet, low-traffic areas based on a perverse notion of ‘equality’ or other claims that undermine public health.”

Researchers have found that people of color and residents of poorer neighborhoods across the country suffer more exposure to noise pollution.

Much of the recent ire in Providence has focused on loud, tricked-out cars and motorcycles. Out for a ride on his motorcycle on a balmy recent afternoon, Alvaro Sousa, 41, of the neighboring city of East Providence, said he has loved the hobby since he was a teenager, but has grown less tolerant of riders who disturb the peace.

Their behavior has resulted in more profiling by the police, who sometimes stop and question him, he said.

“I have a car at home that can be ridiculously loud if I want it to be, but I save it for the right time and place,” Mr. Sousa said.

Mr. Heaney, the retired software engineer, said he tolerated noise in Providence for years, until the pandemic struck and bars and clubs moved their live entertainment outdoors. He pushed city officials to enforce the existing ordinance prohibiting audible noise beyond 200 feet, but grew frustrated by their inaction, he said. The city issued 19 total citations for noise in 2022.

That year, Mr. Heaney and his wife sold their home in the city’s Federal Hill neighborhood — after spending $100,000to improve it, installing a workshop custom-built for his tech pursuits — and moved to East Providence, where they now reside on a quiet cul-de-sac.

He is keeping his eye on several waterfront developments that could disturb his newfound peace, including a new soccer stadium planned for the waterfront in neighboring Pawtucket.

Still, some residents said they were surprised by noise complaints in Providence.

“In comparison to where I came from, this is heaven,” said Arismendy Jerez, who lived in Brooklyn and Queens before moving to Providence this year to open a restaurant on a busy street just south of Federal Hill.

Norlan Olivo, who owns a dance club called The Salon in downtown Providence, said he understands the concern about noise in the city’s residential neighborhoods. But he sees a selfishness in efforts to enforce tranquillity downtown.

“You want it to be quiet, but at what expense?” he asked. “Are you going to take away the magic, the art and music and mixing of cultures that makes the city beautiful?”

Given the prevalence of such perspectives, Mr. Wilner sees a long campaign ahead.

“We all remember how it was with smoking,” he said. “First it wasn’t allowed on planes, then in workplaces. Then over time it underwent a huge decline. We’re trying to start that change with noise.”

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