subway next to apartment buildings

Gentrification and Noise Pollution

Noise pollution goes beyond just what we hear everyday when we are walking down the street. It can help maintain systems of oppression like gentrification and cause low-income people of color to face the risks of losing their home, businesses, and culture. Gentrification is a process in which there is an increase of middle-class or wealthy people who start businesses, renovate and rebuild homes, and buy property in poorer areas, usually causing an increase in property values which pushes out low-income residents (Gentrification | Definition of Gentrification). Gentrification looks like more bike lanes, new coffee shops, and adding anything that is meant to “upgrade” what was once there. This “upgrade” is considered to be better by upper class individuals rather than the low-income residents who were already present. Rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods also undergo constant reconstruction. Areas experiencing gentrification include Harlem, Uptown Chicago, and Atlanta (to learn more about gentrification, watch the video below; Gentrification Explained | Urban Displacement Project). 

Kate Wagner from The Atlantic says because the city governments and local officials are more likely to address noise pollution when it is affecting privileged individuals who are moving into gentrified areas, even if they didn’t address the complaints of working class individuals who previously lived there (City Noise Might Be Making You Sick). Wagner highlights noise pollution laws established to primarily benefit privileged (often white) people. Noise laws have been established as early as 1908 when “quiet zones” were created in New York, which originally were supposed to help prevent harm around places such as hospitals, but it became a part of urban planning. Zones led to a pattern of marginalized communities being punished for noise pollution. Violating noise restrictions in quiet zones was punishable by fines or imprisonment—however, only those with minimal power (people of color, low-income populations, and other marginalized groups) were actually punished, as opposed to punishing the powerful companies and corporations who were the largest contributors of noise. To the government this generally would negatively affect the inflow of money, their higher priority, into the community (City Noise Might Be Making You Sick). The more corporations there are buying land, paying taxes, and establishing businesses, the more lucrative it is for the legislators and law enforcement to act in the best interest of the companies. These noise laws became a tool to bring in even more privileged people that would increase the economic value of the community at the expense of people of color. To this day, many middle-class white people use noise pollution reporting and complaints to push out low-income people of color who live in gentrifying neighborhoods, which allows wealthier people to move in. Filing noise complaints on people of color is especially dangerous considering the police brutality that they experience. An example of how noise laws became a tool is when white residents oppose affordable housing by saying that they cause too much noise in an attempt to resist the construction of more housing (City Noise Might Be Making You Sick). Their vision of an ideal safe and quiet community is one which doesn’t include low income people of color, which is a classist and elitist idea of urban development.

A notable study in 2016 by Dr. Merely Horn analyzed noise complaints sent to 311 in New York City and found that per capita calls increased by 70% in gentrifying neighborhoods (New Neighbors, New Noise Complaints). In an interview with Buzzfeed News, Marva Babel-Tucker, a resident of Prospect Heights (in Brooklyn, NY) for 20 years, said “If you paid $1.5 million for a one-bedroom apartment, then you are going to have entitlement” in reference to the increased noise complaints (Why Gentrification Is Bad News For Local Businesses). Many of these new residents are white, upper class people,and as Babel-Tucker says, it seems as if they think that their needs are a priority over the previous residents of color.

 The NYC Demographic Census reported that as of 2018, the population of white people has increased to 50.8% of Prospect Heights’ total population. Black people made up 24.6% and Hispanic/Latinx made up about 10.1% (the rest of the population was mostly Asian). The black population has been decreasing as the white population is increasing in Prospect Heights ( There is a pattern of music, arts, and community spaces being shut down due to noise complaints and violations. Many of these locations are integral to the culture of the areas that are being gentrified, so losing these venues is losing their culture. According to an interview by GrubStreet, Babel-Tucker’s bar and lounge, Ode to Babel (located in Prospect Heights), was in danger of being shut down due to a local resident’s noise complaint along with allegations of disrespectful management and an incident of domestic assault outside the bar (Prospect Heights Bar Ode to Babel Saved By Black Neighbors). The bar was on the verge of losing their liquor license and the white neighbor began a protest in an attempt to prevent them from remaining open. Babel-Tucker told Buzzfeed News, “It hurts me to see the drastic changes in my community. It hurts. It’s erasure.” 

Ode to Babel is one of the few local black-owned businesses left in Prospect Heights, as gentrification is pushing out businesses owned by people of color. Gentrification frequently replaces these businesses with new ones, such as restaurants, clubs, and theaters, in an attempt to increase cultural capital (which is centered around the dominant white perspective; Neighbourhood change and neighbour complaints). Oftentimes these businesses actually cause more noise pollution, according to local U Street Corridor (in Washington) residents interviewed by NBC who complain about the increased noise in their gentrified town due to the opening of new bars and clubs (U Street Residents Not Enjoying Gentrification They Helped Create). 

Gentrification, from a privileged perspective, is supposed to make a community better, but evidently the question is, better for who? It wasn’t better for Marva, or for U Street Corridor residents, or for the many low-income residents who were pushed out due to noise complaints on affordable housing. Noise pollution has been weaponized by the government and wealthy (mostly) white people who value their comfort and money more than the communities they affect. To dismantle this subtle system of gentrification, specifically the misuse of noise pollution laws to support the gentrification, first noise laws would have to be reevaluated and the aforementioned perpetrators of the system would need to be confronted.