John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The irritating sounds of Manhattan's Jazz Age included yelping newsboys, river dredgers, a marching band of orphans, and a fog siren.
For those with delicate ears, New York City in the 1930s was a 24-hour nightmare. The city rumbled, squeaked, mewed, and tooted thanks to the aural diarrhea of ice deliverers, cattle-car operators, jazz players, river dredgers, steam whistle-happy boat captains, cats, dogs, chickens, and construction workers shooting rivets into everything in sight.
The cacophony that thundered through New York in the Jazz Age has now received proper cartographic attention from Emily Thompson, a historian at Princeton who studies acoustic innovation and the historical "emergence of excessive noise," according to her MacArthur "genius grant" bio. Back in 2002, Thompson penned a book about noise and architecture called The Soundscape of Modernity, which triggered a flood of people bugging her to work up a companion piece that you could actually, you know, hear. More than a decade later the result is here for all to savor: The Roaring 'Twenties, an interactive map of roughly 600 peevish, outraged, and frequently hilarious noise complaints from 1926 to 1932.
By offering a website dedicated to the sounds of New York City circa 1930, The Roaring 'Twenties is following the lead of countless other individuals and organizations who have turned the web into a vast sonic archive, delivering a previously unimaginable wealth of historic sound recordings to anyone with a connection and a desire to listen in. With The Roaring 'Twenties, I hope we not only add to that archive, but also set an example by doing so in an explicitly historically-minded way. The aim here is not just to present sonic content, but to evoke the original contexts of those sounds, to help us better understand that context as well as the sounds themselves. The goal is to recover the meaning of sound, to undertake a historicized mode of listening that tunes our modern ears to the pitch of the past. Simply clicking a "play" button will not do.
Head on over to the site and you'll be confronted with this pigeon's-eye view of the city. Each target represents one noise complaint, often accompanied by old news-reel footage offering the sights and sounds of those responsible for the rowdy decibels: grinning jackhammer operators, clacking elevated trains, boys racing homemade scooters, whanging blacksmiths, a particularly loud-mouthed preacher from the Salvation Army:
Here's one typical grievance from 1931, filed under "Late-Night Piano-Playing Neighbor," from a gentleman named Warren who stayed near 240 East 31st Street: "Warren wrote to Commissioner Wynne to thank him for sending an officer to see his 'annoying musical neighbor,' who now ceased his musicking, 'with an emphasised cord,' promptly at eleven o'clock each night." From the prior year, here's another from a Brooklynite on Madison Street moaning about a vocal hound:
Perhaps most of the complaints you receive concern dogs. The complaints no doubt touch chiefly on the matter of noise, excrement on sidewalks, and biting of children. As you know there is a far more serious objection to dogs maintained in intimate contact with children: As I understand the matter a dog (or any other animal having a higher blood temperature than man) can harbor disease germs that will not affect said animal, and yet these same germs may infect the child coming into intimate contact with the animal 'carrier.'
Unfortunately, no one can estimate the extent to which humans are infected by domestic dogs and cats. I have a suspicion that we ought to seek in such quarters for the origin of some of the dread diseases of childhood – infantile paralysis, for example.
As one might expect, the bulk of the complaints clump in Manhattan's heart where traffic and construction was heavy. Stand-out neighborhoods include Midtown, Turtle Bay, Greenwich Village, Murray Hill, and Gramercy Park, with a zone of yammering commotion running west of Central Park. A line of citizen pique stretched near today's West Side Highway, thanks to a rail-yard symphony of clanking metal and distressed livestock soon to be dinner. A part of Cortlandt Street was known as "Radio Row" for its dense population of electronics venders, who endlessly advertised their staticky gizmos at full volume. Up to 50 radio shops were "all going full blast at the same time," wrote The New York Times, noting that the ungodly "clamor is heard even as one walks through the subway tunnel to the street exit."
Some of the 1920s and 1930s gripes are strikingly similar to those that New Yorkers make today, such as car horns, ventilation fans, nocturnal road work, and musical neighbors whose enthusiasm perhaps outreaches their talent. And some are unique to the era: Has anyone today been jostled from bed by the scraping of ash removers or the clunks of milk and ice hitting the doorstep? People in the southern tip of Manhattan railed against a fog siren for Ellis Island ferries that blasted for insane lengths of time, others on East 44th Street despised a printing press operated by the William Randolph Hearst-founded Daily Mirror, and on Amsterdam Avenue, one tortured soul decried the "damnable din" of a marching band from the Hebrew Orphans Asylum.
People could be quite racist, as you can see from the "Miscellaneous" complaints in this contemporary graphic whose text was expanded for Thompson's project. Those dang vociferous Asian and African Americans!
Now, please have fun exploring the MAAAAAAAAAAAAP... sorry, I'll try to keep it down. If you prefer to go directly to the good stuff, here are a few entertaining complaints I found:
- Loud Music from Nighttime Rooftop Dances, 97th Street at Amsterdam Avenue
"Professor Gottheil, a Professor of Semitic Languages at Columbia University, wrote to Charles Burlingham, a member of the Noise Abatement Commission, on 15 March 1930 complaining of noise from outdoor roof-top dances at a Catholic community center near his apartment building. 'Of course,' he wrote, 'the music is nothing but Jazz, and the noise is practically unbearable for the whole neighborhood.' The complaint was forwarded to the Department of Health, to Assistant Sanitary Superintendent for Manhattan, Dr. Alonzo Blauvelt, who queried his boss on how to proceed. Blauvelt met with the Assistant Pastor of the Holy Name Church, who informed him that no dances had been held since the past September. Blauvelt was additionally told that Gottheil 'was known as a persistent complainant, and no attention had been paid to him, lately, nor would any be given him in the future.'"
- Fog Warning Siren, Immigration [Ellis Island] Ferry Boat Dock
"Acting on behalf of unspecified residents of this area, Assistant Sanitary Superintendent for Manhattan, Dr. Alonzo Blauvelt, inspected this complaint personally. He visited the docks and inquired at several offices before finding the official in charge, Mr. McCullough, Supervising Engineer for the Collector of the Port. McCullough informed Blauvelt that the siren had just been installed yesterday (19 September 1930) and was tested extensively at that time. Under normal circumstances, the siren would sound approximately 15 minutes every hour on foggy days, to warn the hourly Ellis Island Ferry of its approach to the pier. His superiors had specified a siren, to distinguish it from the numerous warning bells and whistles already in service at the Battery. Dr. Blauvelt suggested that a directional horn be installed, to minimize the noise directed toward the land-side, and McCullough agreed to have such an apparatus installed."
- Bugle and Drum Corp of the Hebrew Orphans Asylum, Amsterdam Avenue at 136th Street
"Mr. Winkley had written to complain of this noise in November of 1929, and he wrote back to the Commissioner of Health in March of 1930 to report that, after a cessation of the 'damnable din,' the noise of the drum and bugle corp of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum had returned, 'shattering the peace and quiet of Sunday mornings with the blare of bugles, and the beating of drums, and the incessant marching around in military formation.' Commissioner Wynne asked former Commissioner of Health Thomas Darlington to visit the Asylum and speak to its supervisor about the noise. The outcome is unrecorded."
- Church Bells, Two Blocks from 132 Nassau Street
"Mr. Sandman apparently complained on 1 November 1929, and again on 6 January 1930, about Sunday morning church bells ringing in his neighborhood. Department Counsel James D. O'Sullivan replied on 14 January, pointing out that on November 10th a Health Department Inspector had visited the site and noted that the (unnamed) church had a set of musical chimes installed in its steeple which played hymns for about 22 minutes each Sunday morning. It then tolled bells for three minutes. Neither the bells nor the chimes were harsh in sound and, according to the Inspector, did not constitute a nuisance. Mr. Sandman, who lived two blocks from this church, was also visited at that time, and he indicated to the Inspector that he "did not wish to stir up any trouble." O'Sullivan further explained to Sandman that "it is not and never has been the policy of the Health Department to do anything that might be construed as interfering with ones [sic] religious liberties in the slightest degree."
- Barking Dog, 338 West 46th Street
"Mrs. Van Ralte contacted the office of the Mayor in March of 1929, complaining of the Health Department's lack of action concerning a previous complaint she made in January 1929 about a barking dog owned by a neighbor, Mrs. Matney. Van Ralte asserted that Matney boasted that she had bribed the Health Inspector. The Mayor's office telephoned the Health Department to inquire about the complaint, and Commissioner Wynne wrote back on 11 April 1929, explaining that several inspections were made in response to Van Ralte's initial complaint. The Inspector reported that he found no cause for action when he made his inspections, but nonetheless warned Matney that she would be issued a summons if she permitted her dog to annoy people in the neighborhood. The Manager of the hotel in which Van Ralte resided had informed the Inspector at that time that 'Mrs. Van Ralte was constantly complaining about everything,' and indicated that there was no problem as far as he was concerned.'"
- All-Night Pumping at Construction Site, Southwest Corner of West 63rd Street and Central Park West
"Dr. Blauvelt, Assistant Sanitary Superintendent for Manhattan, reported that he interviewed the contractor at this location, 'Marcus,' who explained that they were sinking a shaft down to bedrock to support a 30-story apartment house to be built at the site. The pumps had to run continuously to remove sand from the shaft until they hit rock. His union men worked through the night with permission from the Superintendent of Buildings, and the work ceased on Sundays only because these men were unwilling to work – even 'at advanced rates' – on that day. The pumps had to keep operating, however, even when digging was not being done."
- Radios at 131 West 94th Street and 130 West 95th Street; Singer at 146 West 95th Street; Barking Dogs at 146 West 95th Street and 135 West 94th Street; Drinking Party at 135 West 94th Street; and Newsboys Crying Headlines
"On 5 July 1932, the Dept. of Health tried to contact a man named Wilson regarding an illegibly-signed letter of complaint dated 21 June, but the Department's letter – sent to the Hotel Victoria, Seventh Avenue and 51st Street, Manhattan – was returned, indicating that no such guest was registered there. The same man, once again signing his name illegibly and this time giving no return address, wrote back on 22 July to reiterate his complaint."
Top image: a cartoon in the New York Herald Tribune riffs on the tough job that lay before New York City's Noise Abatement Commission, established in 1929. Bottom: a municipal acoustics-measuring truck. Images from the New York Department of Health's 1930 tome, City Noise. Other graphics courtesy of The Roaring 'Twenties