Hey Boston, Shut UUUUUUUP Already!!!!!!!
Noise complaints throughout Boston are on the rise and reaching unprecedented levels. Are we actually a louder place now, or are we just becoming a city of whiners?
There was no escaping the sound. Rapid-fire, bass-heavy Caribbean beats radiated a half-mile past the Franklin Park Playstead, galloped through the cool April air over and around White Stadium, and crashed their rhythmic blasts into Dot Fennell’s Jamaica Plain bedroom, where she lay awake seething. The steady buzzing of her air conditioner and the hissing of her white-noise machine were no match for the music. It rattled her windows and her nerves. The noise felt like it was invading her body, down to her very bones.
Five relentless hours had passed like this, and it was close to 2 a.m. when Fennell and her husband heard their three girls wake up in the next room. After tucking them back into bed, she slipped out of her Colonial single-family home, climbed into her Volkswagen SUV, and steered it straight into the beating heart of Boston’s noisiest outdoor nightclub to behold the source of the cacophony for herself. Her iPhone, poking up over the dash, captured the scene so she could complain to her city councilors: no fewer than 100 cars, bumper to bumper up and down both sides of Circuit Drive, concert-quality subwoofers atop a handful of them, booming bass and beats into the night. She drove back home and pulled into her driveway, frustrated and exhausted.
Daylight brought little reprieve. The next afternoon, a convoy of dirt bikes and ATVs buzz-sawed their way into and around Franklin Park for several hours in yet another onslaught of noise. Looking out of her window onto a leafy corner of Boston that she never thought could deliver so much torment, Fennell asked herself, When is this going to end?
So began year two of the most incendiary era in Boston’s sonic history. If wheelie-popping dirt bikes and all-night impromptu nightclubs characterized this past summer, the spring and summer before it featured a city under siege from illegal fireworks bursting on every corner. Since 2020, Bostonians have been more upset about noise than at any time in recent history. But it’s not just that they are sick of the noise; the noise, in many cases, is making them sick. According to a growing body of science, noise isn’t just annoying or bad for our ears; it has ill effects on our physical and mental health. Experts say we need to start treating noise as an environmental health hazard much like polluted drinking water and dirty air.
There is one big difference, though, between how noise affects our health as compared to other environmental pollutants. A burgeoning area of research is finding that when it comes to noise, our feelings about the source of the noise and the people making it—not just the volume—determine how annoying we find it and how damaging it is to our health. As it turns out, unfamiliar or unexpected noises are the most offensive and detrimental to our well-being.
That spells trouble in a place like Boston, which is growing and changing at breakneck speed. Across the city, old-timers are increasingly frustrated with the newcomers in their neighborhoods and the noises they are making, while transplants are freaking out over the noises that have always existed in the neighborhoods they now call home. All of which begs the question: Are we really getting louder as a city, or are we actually turning into a bunch of crybabies and tattletales who simply can’t stand the sound of change?
Before the storm, there was the calm. In the early days of the pandemic, the streets were silent—devoid of commuters—while planes at Logan were all but grounded and the hard-partying college students returned to their family homes in faraway places. An eerie, if welcome, quiet settled over the city.
Then the noise returned with a vengeance. First there was the constant and oppressive cavalcade of ambulance sirens as our city’s many hospitals overflowed with sick people. Then came June 2020, the apex of the relentlessly hellish fireworks, which had war veterans wracked with heart-thumping pangs of PTSD, terrified dogs pacing around homes looking for places to hide, and kids showing up to Zoom classes exhausted from a bad night’s sleep. Meanwhile, the return of Fenway Park’s concert series after a yearlong lull reminded some nearby residents just how much they had come to hate Fenway Sports Group’s push to bring noisy rock concerts to a low-walled, open-air stadium smack dab in the middle of their neighborhood. Old gripes about college students and transplants in their rented apartments throwing all-night ragers in what used to be family-friendly neighborhoods took on new urgency. And with hundreds of thousands of white-collar workers toiling away on their laptops at their kitchen tables, thundering sounds from construction projects were now hitting closer to home.
Whether Boston had actually gotten louder—which in many ways it had—was beside the point. The noise was no longer tolerable, and few residents were staying quiet about it. Complaints about fireworks rocketed up a whopping 5,500 percent over the previous year, according to the city, while reports to 311, Boston’s digital tip line for quality-of-life concerns, read like dispatches from the front lines of a losing war, with a noticeable increase of people using words such as “bombs” and “war zone.” 311 entries with the word “noise” in them in 2020 leapt 32 percent higher than the previous year. Police radios crackled with the sound of noise complaints at rates that most cops had never experienced. Across the city, there were more than 20,000 noise-complaint calls in 2020 alone, nearly twice the average of the previous five years. By late September 2021, police had already fielded 14,700 noise-related calls, and there were still three months to go in the year. During community meetings, residents complained en masse that they had never heard anything like this infernal racket before, and couldn’t take it any longer. One after the other, people threatened to pull up stakes and leave Boston altogether.
All of this was happening at a time when researchers were coming to a fuller understanding of the health effects of noise. They have long known that excessive sound causes a loss of hearing that is often irreversible and that people who live in cities are exposed to noise much more regularly than their counterparts living in the relatively quiet bliss of the countryside. Still, a growing body of science has observed that noise penetrates much deeper into our bodies and minds than was previously known. “For a long time, noise has been considered as just a nuisance or just part of everyday life, and it hasn’t really been researched the same way we researched chemicals or air pollution or water pollution,” says Jonathan Levy, chair of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health. “But this can be substantial for people’s health and well-being. We have to take it seriously.”
Exposure to unwelcome sounds triggers stress responses, which jack up levels of cortisol and other stress hormones, leading to hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes. Every 10 decibels of additional sound increases the risk to the health of our hearts by as much as 17 percent, according to a review of medical literature published in 2014 in the medical journal The Lancet. The same review found that in children, noise is linked to diminished cognitive performance. The following year, an analysis of the existing medical literature, published in Noise & Health, found that long-term noise exposure correlates with a roughly 20 percent increase in incidence of type 2 diabetes. In pregnant women, noise is associated with higher levels of preeclampsia, according to a study in the journal Environmental Pollution. A World Health Organization study out of Europe concluded that one million healthy life-years are lost each year to noise.
For generations, no one had a sense of how loud Boston was, nor how noise was making city dwellers feel. That all changed recently, though, when one researcher finally tuned into the noise around us.
Navigating her way amid throngs of excited Guns N’ Roses fans, Erica Walker pedaled her bike carefully around Fenway Park on the night of the first concert there since before the pandemic. Unlike the people streaming into the bleachers, though, she wasn’t there to revel in the music—she was there to evaluate it. After selecting a prime patch of real estate along Van Ness Street, she pulled a tripod and a small device with an antenna on top out of her backpack and started measuring the sound outside the arena.
By the time Axl Rose’s booming voice began belting out the lyrics to “It’s So Easy,” the first song of the night, neighbors in the Fenway had already been subjected to several hours of blaring sound checks that afternoon. Now residents were immersed in what would be an eardrum-assaulting extravaganza that rattled the aging windows of their homes like mortar fire. The encore? A few hours more of hooting fans and bumper-to-bumper traffic snaking through winding streets, interrupting bedtime rituals like a hard-partying guest who refuses to leave. Welcome to the jungle, indeed.
That night, Walker’s sound monitor registered at 110 decibels, a volume of noise that textbooks say is equivalent to a jackhammer or a concert, meaning it was just as noisy outside the stadium as it was inside. By comparison, it’s not easy to hear concerts at TD Garden when you’re standing on the street outside the arena. A study that Walker, who is an assistant professor of epidemiology at Brown University, conducted previously about concert noise in the Fenway found that live music added 6 decibels to the already noisy baseline of the area’s soundscape—which translates to a near doubling of noise. Neighbors closer to, or unlucky enough to be downwind from, the park saw decibel levels spike even higher. Meanwhile, sound from baseball games barely registered any increase at all.
It was the first proof neighbors had that something about living in the Fenway had drastically changed. None of the nearby residents complained about baseball games, which are deeply embedded in the Fenway’s character and were part of the existing culture when they moved into the neighborhood. “We also bought into the fact that this was a great neighborhood, like a good community, who took care of each other,” says Kristen Mobilia, founding member of the Fenway Quality of Life Alliance, who has lived in the Fenway for 20 years. “Now a lot of those people are leaving. They’re like, I’m done.”
Walker can sympathize. Before she was an up-and-coming star in the burgeoning field of noise epidemiology, she was a furniture-maker living in a Brookline studio beneath a family with a pair of lead-footed toddlers. The sound from upstairs seemed to infiltrate her body, eliciting pangs of anxiety and rage, and pulled her away from her work. She started taking rigorous notes on the ordeal, tape-recording the banging, measuring her blood pressure as her heart raced amid the din, and even swabbing her mouth to send saliva samples to a lab to capture stress hormones. “When I get into something, I get into something,” she says. The racket capped out at 55 decibels, 10 short of the legal allowable limit, giving her little recourse to rat out her neighbors. But as she fed this data obsessively into a spreadsheet, it became clear that this non-consensual acoustic atmosphere was having a measurable impact on her health.
The experience piqued Walker’s interest in the health impacts of noise. Quickly, she learned that, at least in the United States, very little research was being conducted on the issue. “It’s impacting a lot of people’s health, but we feel as a nation that it’s just a first-world problem, that it’s not really that serious. We don’t regulate it properly, we don’t measure it properly,” she says. “It’s just unimaginable to me.”
Vowing to fill that void, Walker returned to school to earn a MS in environmental economics and urban planning from Tufts, and then a doctor of science in environmental health from Harvard. While a postdoc at BU, she founded the university’s Community Noise Lab, which has since moved to Brown with Walker. As part of her work at BU, she conducted a citywide checkup on Boston’s soundscape, crisscrossing the town while recording decibel levels and interviewing neighbors about their suffering. With an app called NoiseScore, she invited hundreds of Bostonians to do the same. They aimed their smartphones at troublesome HVAC systems, construction sites, firework displays, and other sources of malignant sound to measure decibel levels, and described how it made them feel. In 2016, this became the “Greater Boston Noise Report,” the first citywide analysis of sound in almost 50 years. On a report card that assessed noise pollution in each neighborhood, Hyde Park and Mattapan, for instance, got an A+ while South Boston got an F.
Walker’s blunt assessment, and the showering of media attention that followed, put the issue of noise, and Walker herself, on city officials’ radar. When Boston grappled with its fireworks fracas last year, it used the findings of her research to justify a Fireworks Task Force, which launched a public awareness campaign utilizing Walker’s data to show how the blasts of noise were traumatizing at-risk communities. If you noticed there were far fewer fireworks this past summer than the prior year, you have Walker to thank, at least partially.
Along the way, Walker has learned much more about which sounds affect our health and why. At the heart of her work is an up-and-coming concept in the field of noise research, one she thinks can reshape the way we think about how cities sound: that the more we dislike a noise, or the person making it, the more it makes us sick. Researchers are just beginning to understand the impact of noise-related annoyance on health, but the link is becoming clearer: If the noise is new, unexpected, or out of place and can be blamed on an out-group, it becomes all the more maddening. That means there’s limitless potential to upset residents in a city that is growing, diversifying, and changing right before our very ears.
In a city that is growing, diversifying, and changing right before our very ears, there’s limitless potential for noises to upset residents.
It became obvious a while ago that Southie—which has experienced an especially dramatic transformation in recent years—looks different. The old haunts and bars that had existed since before anyone could remember have been replaced by gleaming new restaurants and boutiques. The lifers who pretty much knew all of their neighbors are now living next door to young urban professionals, many of whom were born and raised elsewhere. This summer, though, residents became keenly aware of just how different their corner of the city sounded, too.
To hear locals tell it, twentysomething college grads, keeping their frat-house glory days alive, packed untold number of people into their condos for raucous house parties that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. At a community meeting this past spring, police said they were inundated with noise complaints from Southie Thursdays through Sundays. One weekend alone, the cops received 600 calls about the noise from parties in the neighborhood.
In a South Boston already feeling the unstoppable force of newcomers, a late-night rendition of “WAP”—in a pandemic, no less—was the final indignity. “I’ve lived here for all my 32 years and honestly I’ve never seen anything like it: the disrespect for our senior citizens, our disabled veterans, the people who have built this community,” said Kristen DeVoy at a Zoom meeting to assess the situation, her voice a mix of defiance and resignation. “They’ve made this community, and they want to move…. I want to stay here. I want to raise my daughter here. But it’s become extremely difficult for all of us.”
Rapid demographic change, which Boston has seen in virtually every corner of the city, forces residents to confront new types of noise from new faces. “As gentrification moves into the community, the expectations of how the community should sound changes,” Walker says. Usually this process puts the people who have lived in the community longer at odds with newer residents. Walker calls this “the cultural element of sound.”
It cuts both ways, though. Sometimes, as with the case of Franklin Park, it’s the newcomers who don’t like the sounds of the established neighborhoods they now live in. The dirt bikers who incited so much ire this summer are a prime example of this—they have long been riding in Franklin Park. “Everyone started acting like bikers were just trash,” a veteran off-roader who goes by the moniker “Scooter God” recalls. “We were riding a lot for a while, but then all of a sudden it’s just like, ‘The noise! The noise!’ It’s like, wait, the noise? We’ve been doing this for years.” Sure, there have been some high-profile incidents, including an elderly man and pregnant woman who were seriously injured during run-ins with bikers, but the majority of dirt-bike riders have pursued their unpopular hobby harmlessly, albeit noisily, long before remote workers took their complaints to City Hall. Most, though not all, of those offended enough to complain were white-collar—and to put a finer point on it, white—residents working from home. The bikers, Walker noticed, were mostly Black and brown young men.
This sonic culture clash is something Walker has seen time and again in her research. “If you live in a predominantly Black community, the cultural noise expectation is that you barbecue on the weekends or you may ride your dirt bike. Those are culturally agreed-upon elements, even though they may be loud,” she says, adding that when non-Black people begin to move into the neighborhood, they bring their own cultural expectations for noise and may find the existing sounds annoying and too loud.
It only gets more complicated when people start dialing the cops or 311 to report noises that are unfamiliar to them. Walker’s research has found that those resources are most often used by people who feel empowered to reshape their soundscapes through official channels and are comfortable calling the cops. Meanwhile, she says her research shows that people fearful of immigration authorities in neighborhoods such as East Boston hardly use these resources at all.
Even in her own work, Walker sees these power dynamics fueling noise complaints. There was the time in the Seaport when a group of residents in one of the neighborhood’s glass towers sought her help with unpalatable noise—all of it, apparently, from a Venezuelan restaurant they wanted brought to heel. Or in Portland, Maine, where a request for a noise analysis seemed to overlap, not coincidentally, with an area of town that had recently seen an uptick in its refugee population. Sometimes, Walker will get requests to investigate a certain part of town, only to find the complaints are about immigrants or people of color. “They’ll tell me, in this community, there’s this area that’s really loud. And then you map it, and you see that the area has housing projects,” she says. “It happens all the time.”
That’s not to say complaints always fall along cultural lines. Among those who were furious with the bikers were plenty of Black and brown lifelong Franklin Park neighbors. At the same time, many perturbed white residents, such as Dot Fennell, purposely didn’t call 911 on the partiers and bikers because she didn’t like the idea of calling the cops on Black and brown young men. Still, there is a very real danger that empowered Bostonians can and do weaponize noise complaints against the sound of people who make them uncomfortable.
Even if some of the uproar over noise is fueled by culture clashes, there is no reason for noise complaints in Boston to fall on deaf ears. Yet that’s precisely what many people in the city believe is happening. Southie residents want to see partiers—and the absentee landlords who rent to them—slapped with fines that hurt. People living in the Fenway think the licensing board needs to get involved to set limits on how loud concerts can be, how late they can run, and how many can be held. Residents in and around Longwood think that hospitals need to make fixes to their ever-expanding and noise-generating operations—think: medevac choppers and massive HVAC systems—so that these lifesaving institutions aren’t, in an ironic twist, making people in the neighborhood sick. Many people throughout the city believe that noise mitigation needs to be baked into urban planning in a way it isn’t today.
Other cities have made progress where Boston has not. Asheville, North Carolina, undertook years of community engagement to create a brand-new noise ordinance, which set noise limits and now includes a “noise disturbance standard” in residential areas and public right-of-ways that prioritizes the way noise feels, rather than simply relying on decibel readings. In Baltimore, urban dirt bikers were given use of an underused and far-removed parking lot in which to ride. Fenway Park neighbors have tried, and failed, to get the venue to dial down its concerts and sign a so-called Good Neighbor Agreement regulating the noise. As a model they look to Chicago, where Wrigley Field neighbors have successfully negotiated agreements that, among other things, put strict limits on concerts at the popular baseball park into the city code, such as a ban on holding them on school nights. (Fenway, for its part, says it is committed to working with neighbors to address noise during concerts, and that it has invested in sound-mitigation measures at the park, such as installing lead buffering panels. It says it heard fewer complaints about concerts this season than in years past.)
Still, no one in a city can insulate themselves entirely from the way it sounds. Quiet comes with a lot of baggage: crackdowns, fines, picking winners and losers, cuffing scooter boys, and regulating joyous concerts and community events out of existence. “As a noise researcher,” Walker says, “I don’t believe that the outcome is quiet. If you try to go in to silence someone, you’re usually not going to get anywhere. You’re going to erode the fabric of the community.” But peace? Peace is possible. “With peace, there’s dialogue and everyone has to get something and everyone has to give up something.”
What that middle ground looks like is still not clear. Maybe companies that profit handsomely from concerts should have to retrofit nearby homes for noise abatement, much in the way Massport does for those living under the Logan flight path. Maybe city officials need to consider noise more seriously when they approve projects and licenses. And perhaps all of us need to stop, take a look around, and simply listen to the vibrant, pulsing, culturally rich city we live in. Only then will we realize that we may have to put up with some new and different sounds if we want to benefit from all that Boston has to offer.