Friday, June 10, 2016


Dozens of people turned out to oppose the new homes, and one of their top complaints was the rooftop decks that were proposed. They expressed concern about the noise from possible parties that would happen on said decks years from now. They demanded limitations on the hours of access to the decks, if not their elimination altogether.

Neighbors complained about the restaurant's proposed outdoor patio. It would only accommodate up to 20 people, but residents from blocks away swore that they'd be able to hear the sounds of drunk revelers until and past two in the morning should the patio be opened.

In both of these instances, the proposed new homes and patio would be located along four-lane streets where cars travel up to 40-45 MPH 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I've been thinking a lot about sound.

Having lived in the heart of San Francisco's Castro District for years, I grew accustomed to hearing people laughing, dance music thumping, and glass bottles being smashed occasionally (usually in the wee morning hours). I also can recall hearing shopping carts clanking, motorcycles roaring to unimaginable decibels, and car engines accelerating through the nearby intersection.

Living now in Los Feliz, I almost only ever hear roaring motorcycles, an unending stream of car and truck engines, the occasional helicopter (often landing at the nearby hospital), and intermittent police and fire sirens. As for people? Only rarely - and I mean *rarely* - and only then usually from managers barking orders at the nearby auto shop.

I think of this as I reflect on neighbors' fears of the occasional rooftop party coupled with their complete resignation to the nonstop roar of engines that continues unabated all hours of the day just feet from their beds. I think of this when I sit at a restaurant's outdoor patio on a small sidestreet where I feel right at home, as compared to that patio adjoining a small thoroughfare where just getting through the meal is a task.
 (one of my favorite outdoor restaurant patios)

I think of this when I see hopeful renderings of freeways where bikes scoot alongside cars that will undoubtedly be zipping along at such speeds that the roar of their engines will be a nonstop assault on any adjacent cyclists' ears.
 (but at least the people on bikes have a swervy lane!)

So what to make of this? Let's look at these two busy streets.

First, one in San Francisco:

And second, one in Los Angeles:

What's the difference? For starters, the San Francisco street is moving a LOT more people with a LOT less space. But that's the obvious visual cue. Now try and imagine yourself standing on the sidewalk in each of these places. Where would you rather be? Even if your thought process moves you to imagine yourself stuck in traffic in the San Francisco street, you're also much more inclined to seek out a destination like the street shown there, which is swarming with people.

I'm convinced that sound plays a much larger role in our choices about how we live, shop, work, travel, and play than we realize. We spend a great deal of time obsessing over how something looks, from the design of a building, crosswalk, bike lane, or park. But we rarely if ever consider how something SOUNDS. As social animals by nature, the impact of sounds - and particularly the sounds of our fellow human beings - is profound. If a simple, 3-minute song can move us to tears, what then could the impact be of a few minutes of the sounds of people conversing while walking down the street or celebrating a life event within earshot? These random, unplanned experiences - no matter how inconveniencing - are the sounds of city life, the sounds of humanity, that I am convinced increase our empathetic responses toward others and give us some small added meaning in life.

Getting back to the start of this post, it boggles the mind that, at least in Los Angeles, we've been conditioned to accept the constant, and sometimes deafening, roar of cars and trucks traveling at high speeds as simply another part of being in the city. But should anyone try to open a bar, expand a restaurant, or build homes, they'll be taken to the woodshed at the remotest possibility that neighbors might be able to hear the voices of the actual human beings who otherwise would simply be relegated to roaring down our streets cocooned in their cars.

One of the clearest signs of how far we have traveled along this social experiment of surrendering to our cars is this: That we no longer even hear other cars' engines, while the slightest chance of hearing other human beings' voices motivates us to show up to meetings and proclaim our disapproval.

There are volumes more to say on this topic, but I wanted to offer just a few thoughts and welcome thoughts/comments from others.

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