October 30, 2008

Noise Violations: Not the Sweetest Sounds

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Are Ithaca’s police stealing our money? Cornell and the Ithaca Police Department may have a complex relationship, but I don’t think that I am the only student here who feels as though there is serious extortion involved. They roam Collegetown looking for open containers, public urination, drunk, loud pizza eaters and most interestingly, loud parties. They write a ticket, we oblige or get thrown in jail for an obligatory moment, and then we are forced to pay a, relatively speaking, outrageous amount of money for these transgressions. One gets the feeling that Ithaca sees Collegetown as a great source of revenue from “rich kids” who make alcohol-induced mistakes.
By all accounts, most of the tickets issued deal with an act we have all agreed can be considered illegal. Open container and public urination laws may seem frivolous, but there is little ambiguity about a given case fitting or not fitting a given law.
But it seems to be different with noise. This past weekend, I attended a party that was broken up because people were singing on the street in front of the house. The police used this as a pretext to barge in, even though the party itself was making a minimal amount of noise.
In a Sept. 8 Sun article by Alix Dorfman ‘10, the Deputy Chief of Cornell Police Kathy Zoner was quoted saying, “Noise travels beyond property lines, and consideration of any neighbor, student or not, should always be in front of any perceived ‘right to party.” Zoner’s unintentional reference to the famous Beastie Boys anthem is telling, because it suggests that she thinks we are all self-righteous and entitled about our “right” to have a good time, and to do so loudly. It is certainly patronizing, but I think it most interesting because it embeds larger cultural ideas we share, or don’t share, in regard to sound and noise.
What do Zoner and the law imply? That sound is a private matter, in relation to other sensory experiences, like smell and sight. There is apparently nothing wrong with seeing your neighbor’s party or smelling their barbeque. In addition, there is an assumption that excess noise levels are detrimental to our “comfort, repose, health, peace or safety,” to quote the actual provisions. Enforcement of the law has come to rely less on the phone calls of neighbors who can’t sleep or study and more on the personal choices of police officers, who can decide that a party exceeds “reason” and charge hundreds of dollars.
If we truly seek “peace” and “repose,” then we may need to reassess the roles sound and noise play in our environment. The Clocktower’s thunderously noisy renditions of Coldplay and The Beatles are easily much louder than any party I’ve ever passed by, and when I am stressed and studying for a test, they certainly do not help me out with the lofty goals of the Ithaca ordinances. The police aren’t going to bother the Clocktower’s inhabitants on my account, though the image of them doing so is pretty humorous.
Why are the chimes allowed to ring so loudly? Because we have publicly agreed that as an aural experience they are an integral part of what it means to inhabit Cornell.
The same can be said of party noise in Collegetown. Living on College Ave. last year may have been a pain when I wanted to sleep before 3 a.m. on a Friday night, but there was something so quintessentially collegiate about the whole thing, and I remember it with the same nostalgia that is associated with the chimes. Memories from our romanticized “college experience” will involve aural moments as much as anything else; the shouts of crowds at football games, Slope Day concerts, Rihanna at a frat party, a cappella groups under arches and of course, those famous chimes.
What I am trying to say is that the way we talk about what we hear at Cornell on Saturday night, between classes, and whenever else has a great deal of legal, moral, ethical and political nuances and implications. The fact that the city’s ordinance refers to illegal noise as “unreasonable” means that for them, the issue involves more than just safety in the medical sense, it involves the lofty notion of “reason.”
Sound and noise are an integral part of the relationship between Cornell, Ithaca and the many communities within both, which has not been brought into the conversation as an independent concern. I think it has to be raised before we are extorted out of hundreds of more dollars.