One of the downsides of living in the city is that neighborly noise levels are a relative unknown until you’ve unpacked your boxes and start settling in. At open houses, the focus tends to be closet size and amount of sunlight exposure as opposed to the acoustics of the building.
In my very first studio, I quickly realized that I lived next door to an avid heavy metal fan. Over the course of my three-year tenancy, I knocked on his door a handful of times to ask him to lower his music. He always readily complied. All the other times he blasted his tunes, I’d either leave my matchbox pad or turn the volume up a notch on my Top 40 hit list.
In my next apartment, I was lucky to have a doctor’s office below me, and my best friend above me. For a few serene years, noise wasn’t an issue. When my bestie moved out, our landlords moved in. They slept on a pull out couch and every night we listened to them re-arrange their furniture on their uncarpeted floors. We couldn’t complain since they hadn’t increased our rent in years and we loved where we lived. On the flip side, each time we had friends over for a barbeque, we had to deal with the neighbors from the adjacent building asking us to be quiet. We were determined to enjoy our coveted outdoor space, but always extended an invite in response to their complaints. They never accepted, opting instead for theatrical window slammings. With the exception of one blowout party each year, we tried our best to be mindful of the time of night in relation to the noise level.
Ironically, as we started our search to become first-time apartment-owners, our landlords became louder (and stranger). By this time, we had a two year old and one on the way and were always dreaming of sleep. They, on the other hand, were senior night owls thrilled with their pied a terre in the Big Apple. One of the last nights there, attempting to get some shut-eye, we heard very loud music. The more we listened, the more it sounded like singing, getting louder and more ‘passionate’ by the minute. My husband finally decided to investigate and it was only when their door cracked open that he realized that the scantily-clothed wife was serenading her husband with the aid of a karaoke machine, belting out her own seductive version of ‘Killing Me Softly.” It was beyond awkward for all of us, and clearly time for us to move.
In our new place, we were thrilled to have a doorman, an elevator and more space! The very first night, we crawled into bed with aching backs, exhausted from a marathon day of unpacking. Upon turning out the lights, we heard the thundering noise of a war movie coming from the TV directly above us. I actually uttered the words, ‘This is my worst nightmare’. Albeit, an exaggeration, but I was eight months pregnant, tired and still recovering from the disturbing visual of my previous landlords.
After a week of incessantly loud (and violent) TV noises at night, we decided to write a note to our upstairs neighbors, introducing ourselves and politely asking if at possible for them to turn down the volume a bit after 10pm. They responded immediately with a phone call letting us know that they had been in the building for over 40 years, had raised their own children here and had dealt with so many unreasonable noisy neighbors over the years, that they are more than happy to work with us. This lovely gentleman actually went to Best Buy that very day and bought himself earphones so that when he watched TV after 10, there would be no noise at all. Even though we still heard every war documentary, nightly until 9:59, things were always quiet after that.
Life went on and a young couple moved into the apartment below ours. By this time we had an infant and a toddler and were constantly sleep-deprived. Our new 20-something neighbors were in the ‘party-all-night’ stage. We listened to extended late-night beer pong games and knew exactly which football team they and all their friends were rooting for each Sunday. We called them a few times when the parties got really late or really loud, and while they were not as responsive as our upstairs neighbors, we all managed to deal and chalked it up to ‘city living’.
About a year later, they had their first child and my husband and I had flashbacks of those sleepless nights with what seemed like hourly feedings and diaper changes. By this point, our own kids were great sleepers and we were in the next phase of pre-school and play dates with early and strict bedtimes. We would lie awake at 3am listening to their baby scream directly below us. While it was annoying, most nights I felt worse for them than I did for us! I remember running into the new mom a few weeks later and she told me how she had been meaning to call me. I stopped her mid-sentence and told her not worry at all, for we had been in the trenches of sleep training. I assured her that there was a light at the end of the noise tunnel for all of us and to try to hang in there. I was utterly shocked when she looked at me completely confused and told me that she had been actually meaning to call me because my daughters were being too loud in the after-school hours and their running around was disturbing her baby’s afternoon nap. I somehow managed to maintain my composure and realized that noise becomes relative to the person who’s affected by it. The middle of the night crying of their baby continued, as did my kids’ afternoon play dates. Soon after their son started sleeping peacefully through the night, we got word that they were high tailing it to the suburbs. We’ll never know how much of a factor my ‘loud’ kids played in their decision to leave the city.
The new owner who moved in shortly afterwards proceeded to do a full kitchen renovation that had us shaking from the drilling and vibrations for a very long few weeks. One night shortly after the renovation had ended, he knocked on our door complaining about our children’s stomping. I was sympathetic and really wanted to start things off on the right foot this time around. I gave him my cell number and told him to feel free to text me when the noise was excessive and I would make sure to quiet them down. Big mistake. Apparently ‘excessive’ means different things to different people. To this 30-something bachelor, a 10-minute game of hide and seek at 5:30pm on a Tuesday, was ‘excessive’. I began receiving texts on all too frequent basis. At first, I tried my best to be understanding, but the constant complaints, got very annoying, very quickly. As with most kids in the city, their after-school schedules are packed. Most days we don’t get home until after 5pm and have a small window of time before dinner, showers and an enforced 8pm bedtime. On weekends, my kids know that they are only allowed to read, play quietly or watch TV until 9am.
I decided to call him and talk this out rationally. I explained that I was confused about when exactly he found the noise disturbing. Apparently, at 5pm each day, he would prefer it to be more quiet. I told him that the reality of the situation was that we have two kids that walk around, sometimes jump and are bound to make noise. He responded by spending an exorbitant amount of money, lowering his bedroom ceiling in hopes of reducing the noise level through added insulation. The renovation was even longer and louder than the one in the kitchen. Right after the renovation was complete, our neighbor (and his now live-in girlfriend) bought an adorable new puppy. A puppy who happens to bark ALL the time. We giggled about this in our family. We were relieved since clearly, now that they had an incessantly yapping dog, they would realize that they really didn’t have a leg to stand on complaining to us about noise.
Once again, we were wrong. This time, we received a call by our managing agent requesting a visit to our apartment to inspect our rugs and make sure we were in compliance with the 80% coverage rules of our coop. We were told to invest in thick rug pads. I ordered them online the next day and buffered all our rugs as soon as they arrived. Now we were in complete compliance with the rules AND 100% over our neighbors. We asked for them to lose our number and direct all future communication to the Board or the Managing Agent. We informed the Board of the barking dog but explained that given that we’ve lived in this city for over two decades, we’re fully aware that thin walls don’t discriminate between overzealous puppies and young children. We now feel a bit more liberated knowing we have done all we have been required to do and are finally more permissive in letting our kids have impromptu dance parties. When the dog barks late at night, I don’t get annoyed, I’m actually happy thinking that my neighbors must now finally get it.
And yet, I continue to be amazed. Yesterday my doorman handed me a note. I asked him if it was a love note and he laughed and shook his head to indicate it was clearly the opposite of that. Sure enough, it was notification from our (now insane) neighbors that they are starting yet another renovation, this time, to lower their living room ceiling. At the very least, we’re hopeful that once the drilling is complete, we’ll hear less barking. If that fails, perhaps a move to suburbia is their best next bet. When we finally do move, I’m going to make sure to be a little more informed on the thickness of the walls in our future building and investigate the complaint logs of our potential neighbors.
When you decide to live in this great city of ours, you have to come to terms with the fact that we literally live on top of each other. With thin walls, life gets noisy for all of us. If only we could all do our part in being mindful of our neighbors and reasonable with our noise-related expectations. When that fails, then accept the fact that if you can longer stand the noise, it’s probably time to get out of the city (or get a brownstone)!
Prior to becoming a stay at home mom, Mina was an HR Recruiter for years. Now her time is spent happily juggling the demands of two young daughters while trying to expose them to the endless adventures the city has to offer.
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