Noise issues from helicopters, fireworks and more can cause stress. Credit:

Tanya Bonner couldn’t sleep again. The noise surrounding her Washington Heights apartment was loud, and Bonner, a St. John’s University professor, needed rest. She left her neighborhood for a hotel on the Upper West Side.

“I knew I could go to the Upper West Side, near Columbus Circle, or go somewhere else where there’s wealthy people,” Bonner said. “I could go there and I could have peace at night.”

It’s not surprising that New York – known as the city that never sleeps – is noisy. A ranked it the noisiest city in the U.S. But many ż residents don’t realize that noise pollution is linked to serious health issues, and that low-income communities and communities of color often .

Bonner has lived in her neighborhood since 2005 but says the noise has gotten worse over the years. , fireworks and loud outdoor parties that seem to never end cause cacophonies. 

An environmental public health issue

One neighbor told Bonner that her grandmother had a heart attack due to fireworks that sounded like bombs going off.

“I can imagine what that would do to someone who’s elderly with a heart condition,” Bonner said.

Bonner’s doctor suggested she move from her current neighborhood. Courtesy: Tanya Bonner

Bonner has had her own conditions – diabetes and high blood pressure – exacerbated by noise, so much so that once her doctor asked if it was possible for her to move. But relocation was out of her budget.

Noise issues , which can worsen health issues.

“What happens when people get angry and annoyed? Their blood pressure goes up, pulse rate increases, there are physiological changes in their body,” said environmental psychologist Arline Bronzaft, who has been studying how noise impacts public health for nearly fifty years.

“[Noise] might cause a permanent [health] effect, but even if it didn’t… you’re living a diminished quality of life,” said Bronzaft, 88, who’s also on the board of Growż, an environmental nonprofit. “That is harmful because you’re upset, you’re disturbed, you find you can’t stop thinking about it, [it’s] intruding on your sleep, and you’re miserable.”

As a young professor in the 1970s , Bronzaft gave a lecture on the health impacts of noise to her Lehman College students. After class, a mother shared how noise was interrupting her child’s learning.

“She lives in Inwood and the trains are so noisy, the children in the class can’t learn,” Bronzaft recalled.

The woman told Bronzaft she wanted to sue the city. Bronzaft knew the lawsuit would need data, so she looked at the reading scores of classes on opposite ends of the school. One class was exposed to trains zooming by every four and a half minutes, while the other side was quiet.

“When I looked at the reading scores of the children next to the trains, by the sixth grade, they were nearly a year behind in reading compared to the children on the quiet side,” Bronzaft said.

That became research on how noise pollution affects education. But Bronzaft still needed to help the child. 

Bronzaft learned that the transportation authority was testing resilient rubber pads to quiet track noise. She got the group to do a pilot procedure by the Inwood school. She also convinced the Board of Education to put acoustic tiles in the classroom. 

“I went back and did and now that the classrooms were quieter both [sides of] children were reading at the same level,” Bronzaft said.

Decades later, Bronzaft is often fielding calls from those looking for guidance on their neighborhood noise. A big complaint: aircrafts.

“They have studies that show that people who live near airports have an of going to hospitals for cardiovascular disorders,” Bronzaft said.

Aircrafts: A major noise pollutant

In the summer of 2019, Melissa Elstein started hearing constant “chop-chop” sounds above her near Central Park. 

Elstein, a former professional ballerina who teaches yoga, Tai Chi, and other wellness practices, searched the internet to find out more about the choppers. She learned many flights were non-essential sightseers, charters or commuter rides.

“That’s when I realized, ‘wow, this is all for-profit services that’s disturbing me,’” Elstein said.

With the help of her neighbors, Elstein helped revive Stop The Chop NY/NJ, a grassroots organization that tackles helicopter noise and non-essential flights.

Commuter helicopter taking passengers to and from the West 30th Street Heliport and JFK airport. Courtesy: Stop the Chop

“We don’t need someone to take a helicopter to the airport or simply to the Hamptons when that could be done in a much more environmentally friendly way,” Elstein said.

Military, emergency services, police, medical government, and media flights are considered essential. Some of those flights are increasing too. A report from found that NYPD helicopters took 3,938 flights in 2023. That’s about a 56% increase from 2022.

There are two city-owned heliports, in Battery Park and on East 34th Street, and one state-run heliport in Hudson River Park. There’s legislation in the New York Senate aiming the park’s heliport, as well as on non-essential flights.

There are also several with related missions. City data over 59,000 helicopter noise complaints were made in 2023, compared to approximately 26,000 in 2022. Elstein’s often shocked by how bad helicopter interruptions can get. 

“In my apartment, some days up and down the Hudson, it is one after another after another,” Elstein said. “It really just feels like a war zone at times.”

It’s a unique low-vibrational sound.

“It’s also a noise that I think – and military people will say this as well – has really been associated for most of our lives with emergency services, military, [and the] police department,” she adds.

Research loud noises, like the helicopter whir, activate the body’s flight-or-fight response. At an , one attendee said the constant blade-chop triggers memories of living through 9/11.

Flight paths directly over Black neighborhoods in Brooklyn

Chopper noise is not just a problem for ż’s waterfront communities. Many of these non-essential helicopter rides fly directly over Brooklyn neighborhoods. Elstein says one Stop The Chop NY/NJ board member who lives in central Brooklyn constantly deals with low-flying choppers. In addition, neighborhood social media groups are often complaining about constant helicopter sounds. 

Commuter helicopter taking passengers from the West 30th Street Heliport to JFK over Brownsville. Courtesy: Stop the Chop

“They’re not flying over water, they’re just flying directly across from the West 30th Street heliport, sometimes East 34th Street, directly straight out,” Elstein said.

Many of these flights take routes over Flatbush Avenue or the Eastern Parkway, according to Stop The Chop NY/NJ. These areas are home to many Black neighborhoods, putting them particularly at risk for the noise (and air) pollution coming from choppers.

Affected communities include Crown Heights, Flatbush, East New York, Flatlands, Brownsville, Fort Greene, Bushwick, Williamsburg, Prospect Heights, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens. designates many of these communities as environmental justice areas, which are places dealing with disproportionate amounts of pollution. These neighborhoods are often made up of low-income residents of color who face these disadvantages “due to historical and existing social inequities without equal protection and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations,” according to a from the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice. 

Pushback on noise advocacy

As Stop The Chop NY/NJ battles chopper noise, their main opposition comes from the aviation industry.

“Even though the helicopter industry is generally smaller than the jet industry, it is still part of the aviation industry as a whole,” Elstein said. “And they are with lobbyists.”

Bonner, on the other hand, is fighting noise in her neighborhood from the ground. As she met with neighbors to share frustrations, they realized noise complaints were often met with silence from city officials.

 Bonner, a member of Community Board 12, which serves Washington Heights and Inwood, with her colleagues the WaHi-Inwood Task Force On Noise.

They’ve been pushing for more surveillance targeting noise disruptions, which has caused friction in their neighborhood. Some community members worry it would bring more police into the predominantly Black and Latino community. Others worry noise level enforcement would attack community culture.

“What bothered me about that – as a person who’s a Black woman – is that it almost degrades minorities and says that all we do is party all day and night,” Bonner said. 

To her, it’s a matter of respect.

“Our elderly people need to rest, our newborns need to sleep, our kids need to study [and] people who are sick need to be able to recuperate,” Bonner said. “It’s not just wealthy communities that need these things.” 

“People were saying that we were just a bunch of Karens being disrespectful to the culture up here, because this is a heavily Dominican community,” Bonner recalled.

Yet, according to Bonner, half of the WaHi-Inwood Task Force is made up of Dominican representatives, including members who are business owners or parents. 

Noise abatement strategies

Advocates say the solutions to reducing noise don’t necessarily mean more police officers. One strategy that Bronzaft advocates for is putting back up “don’t honk” signs. The city took them down in 2013. She compares them to “curb your dog” signage targeting pet waste.

Advocates also support more designated quiet places (especially as ż libraries cut back hours) and funding to improve public transportation to limit aircraft and vehicle noise.

While the battle can be frustrating, Elstein still finds it empowering to advocate for her community.

“It’s kind of a David and Goliath fight, but look, we’ve had these kinds of fights before in the environmental movement,” Elstein said. 

She lists environmental wins, including bans around fracking and smoking in bars and restaurants, as well as plastic bag ordinances.

“It takes patience, but I think the environmentalists usually prevail,” Elstein said.

Getting involved in activism could mean 311 chopper noise complaints – Elstein recommends the free apps Flightradar24 and ADS-B Exchange to help with tracking non-essentials. 

Bonner speaks at a Know Noise event. Courtesy: Tanyer Bonner

For Bonner, part of that work includes pushing the city to modernize its , which hasn’t been upgraded since 2007.

“It doesn’t address those new sorts of noise that we’re encountering and it also doesn’t take into consideration the types of technologies that we have today to monitor noise.” she says.

In the meantime, she hopes the growing awareness around noise issues in the city will continue to focus on community health. The WaHi-Inwood Task Force On Noise is helping Columbia University recruit study participants for research about how noise affects sleep in the Heights and Inwood. 

“This is about public health for our community and if that’s not a concern for someone, then they should ask themselves why,” Bonner said.

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