Why Do Rich People Love Quiet?

The sound of gentrification is silence.

illustration of Brooklyn street at night with a couple walking past and giving a dirty look to a group of people on a brightly lit stoop who are talking and laughing
Jorge Colombo

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New York in the summer is a noisy place, especially if you don’t have money. The rich run off to the Hamptons or Maine. The bourgeoisie are safely shielded by the hum of their central air, their petite cousins by the roar of their window units. But for the broke—the have-littles and have-nots—summer means an open window, through which the clatter of the city becomes the soundtrack to life: motorcycles revving, buses braking, couples squabbling, children summoning one another out to play, and music. Ceaseless music.

I remember, the summer before I left for college, lying close to my bedroom box fan, taking it all in. Thanks to a partial scholarship (and a ton of loans), I was on my way to an Ivy League college. I was counting down the days, eager to ditch the concrete sidewalks and my family’s cramped railroad apartment and to start living life on my own terms, against a backdrop of lush, manicured lawns and stately architecture.

I didn’t yet know that you don’t live on an Ivy League campus. You reside on one. Living is loud and messy, but residing? Residing is quiet business.

I first arrived on campus for the minority-student orientation. The welcome event had the feel of a block party, Blahzay Blahzay blasting on a boom box. (It was the ’90s.) We spent those first few nights convening in one another’s rooms, gossiping and dancing until late. We were learning to find some comfort in this new place, and with one another.

Then the other students arrived—the white students. The first day of classes was marked by such gloriously WASPy pomp that it made my young, aspirational heart leap. Professors in academic regalia gave speeches about centuries-old traditions and how wonderful and unique we were—“the best class yet.” Kids sang a cappella and paraded with a marching band. I’d spent my high-school years sneaking out at night to drink 40s on the beach and scheming my way into clubs. I understood that what was happening around me wasn’t exactly cool, but it was special. And I was a part of it.

I just hadn’t counted on everything that followed being so quiet. The hush crept up on me at first. I would be hanging out with my friends from orientation when one of our new roommates would start ostentatiously readying themselves for bed at a surprisingly early hour. Hints would be taken, eyes would be rolled, and we’d call it a night. One day, when I accidentally sat down to study in the library’s Absolutely Quiet Room, fellow students Shhh-ed me into shame for putting on my Discman. With rare exceptions—like Saturday nights during rush—silence blanketed the campus.

I soon realized that silence was more than the absence of noise; it was an aesthetic to be revered. Yet it was an aesthetic at odds with who I was. Who a lot of us were.

Within a few weeks, the comfort that I and many of my fellow minority students had felt during those early cacophonous days had been eroded, one chastisement at a time. The passive-aggressive signals to wind our gatherings down were replaced by point-blank requests to make less noise, have less fun, do our living somewhere else, even though these rooms belonged to us, too. A boisterous conversation would lead to a classmate knocking on the door with a “Please quiet down.” A laugh that went a bit too loud or long in a computer cluster would be met with an admonishment.

In those moments, I felt hot with shame and anger, yet unable to articulate why. It took me years to understand that, in demanding my friends and I quiet down, these students were implying that their comfort superseded our joy. And in acquiescing, I accepted that.

I had taken the sounds of home for granted. My grandmother’s bellows from across the apartment, my friends screaming my name from the street below my window. The garbage trucks, the car alarms, the fireworks set off nowhere near the Fourth of July. The music. I had thought these were the sounds of poverty, of being trapped. I realized, in their absence, that they were the sounds of my identity, turned up to 11.

I loved the learning that I did in college—academic and cultural. And I managed to have a lot of fun, in the spaces that the students of color claimed as our own. We had our own dormitories, our own hangouts; we even co-opted a room in the computer center where we could work the way we preferred, with Víctor Manuelle or Selena playing in the background. Some white students resented that we self-segregated. What they didn’t understand was that we just wanted to be around people in places where nobody told us to shush.

When I moved back to Brooklyn after college, I found that the place had changed. Neighborhoods that had been Polish and Puerto Rican and Black were suddenly peppered with people who looked better-suited to my college campus than to my working-class home turf. Many of them needed the affordable rents because they had opted into glamorous but poorly paying white-collar jobs. Alas, these newcomers hadn’t moved here to live alongside us; they’d come to reside.

The first time it happened was the night before Thanksgiving. Three or four of us—all people of color—were eating takeout in my best friend’s studio apartment. The radio was playing, and we were debating, as we often did, who was the best rapper alive. There was a knock at the door and when we opened it, my friend’s neighbor, a 20-something woman new to Brooklyn, was standing there, exasperated. “Did your mothers not teach you the difference between inside voice and outside voice?”

The next time it happened was at brunch in Fort Greene, the time after that in a newly opened hotel bar in Williamsburg. After a while, I stopped keeping track. The people complaining clearly thought they were trying to enforce a sonic landscape that they deemed superior, but what they were really doing was using shame to exert control. Over the restaurant, the building, the borough. Us.

For generations, immigrants and racial minorities were relegated to the outer boroughs and city fringes. Far, but free. No one else much cared about what happened there. When I went to college, it was clear to me that I was a visitor in a foreign land, and I did my best to respect its customs. But now the foreigners had come to my shores, with no intention of leaving. And they were demanding that the rest of us change to make them more comfortable.

The Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise was founded by a physician named Julia Barnett Rice in 1906. Rice believed noise was unhealthy, and enlisted New York City’s gentry (including Mark Twain) to lobby for things like rules governing steamboat whistles, and silence pledges from children who played near hospitals.

The group met in posh spaces like the St. Regis hotel, but Rice insisted that she was not solely interested in protecting New York’s upper class. “This movement is not for the relief of the rich,” she wrote in The New York Times, “for the poor will benefit by it fully as much as, if not more than, those who can leave the city whenever they wish.” In 1909, the organization celebrated the passage of an ordinance that prohibited street vendors (many of them immigrants) from shouting, whistling, or ringing bells to promote their wares. (The ban applied only to Manhattan, though the city had fully incorporated as the five boroughs a decade earlier.)

Attempts to regulate the sounds of the city (car horns, ice-cream-truck jingles) continued throughout the 20th century, but they took a turn for the personal in the ’90s. The city started going after boom boxes, car stereos, and nightclubs. These were certainly noisy, but were they nuisances? Not to the people who enjoyed them.

In 1991, the NYPD launched Operation Soundtrap, a campaign in which cops would trawl streets—often in majority-Black-and-brown communities—hunting for and confiscating cars with enhanced stereo systems. (“If they don’t turn down the volume, we’ll turn off their ignition,” the chief of the police department vowed.) When Rudy Giuliani became mayor in 1994, he used a cabaret-license law to force clubs out of gentrifying neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and Chelsea. The battle against nightlife continued during the Bloomberg years. New York was effectively codifying an elite sonic aesthetic: the systemic elevation of quiet over noise.

In the years that followed, many of New York’s nightclubs migrated to Brooklyn, which remains loud and proud. An analysis of 2019 data ranked it as the loudest borough in New York. It earned this distinction by racking up the most noise complaints to 311—the city complaint hotline. Which raises the question: Was it the noisiest borough? Or was it just home to the densest mix of loud people and people who wanted to control those loud people?

I find many city noises nerve-racking and annoying: jackhammers doing street maintenance, the beeping of reversing trucks, cars honking for no good reason. Yet these noises account for a small minority of all noise complaints. Nearly 60 percent of recent grievances center on what I’d consider lifestyle choices: music and parties and people talking loudly. But one person’s loud is another person’s expression of joy. As my grandmother used to say, “I’m not yelling, this is just how I tawk!”

The Upper East Side of Manhattan, which runs from 59th Street to 96th Street, is one of the borough’s quietest neighborhoods. Save for trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I didn’t spend a lot of time there growing up. In fact, my first real foray uptown came that summer before college. The woman who’d endowed my scholarship wanted to meet me. I stepped out of the elevator of her Fifth Avenue apartment building in my Sunday best, and was promptly greeted by a maid—another Latina. I waited, very quietly, for my benefactor—a pleasant older woman in a Chanel suit—to join me for tea. For an hour I pretended to be a meek, muted version of myself. No one had told me to do this. I instinctively understood that, in this unfamiliar environment, the proper way to express my gratitude was to hush myself.

That day recently returned to me when I realized that the same luxurious stretch of Fifth Avenue is also home to the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. Puerto Ricans have been coming to New York since the United States seized the island as a colony after the Spanish-American War, but the great wave of migration occurred in the 1950s and ’60s. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans moved to the Lower East Side, Spanish Harlem, parts of the Bronx, Bushwick, and Sunset Park, where I grew up. In the late 1950s, community leaders wanted to show their children—many of whom had never been to la matria—pride in their identity by coming out of the margins and marching through the heart of Manhattan. Over the years, the parade has grown and grown.

It is a loud affair, and I take pride in saying that we are a loud people. (Is it a coincidence that one of J.Lo’s biggest hits was “Let’s Get Loud”? I think not.) We love our music. We love to dance. We love being Puerto Rican. And perhaps this is why the parade inspires such discomfort. In the ’90s, Upper East Siders implored the city permit office to move the parade to the Bronx, to “their neighborhood.” A 2003 New York Times story reported that “one day a year the Upper East Side takes a deep breath and prepares itself.” Only after Michael Bloomberg, then the city’s mayor, made a public appeal did retailers and property owners along the route stop boarding up their windows as if a hurricane were barreling down on the city. Some restaurants and coffee shops still close for the day.

In June, after a two-year COVID hiatus, the 65th Annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade marched up Fifth Avenue. I had the honor of being an ambassador for arts and culture, which meant I got to ride in the back of a red convertible. The event is a big party, or more accurately, a thousand different parties all celebrating the same thing: being Puerto Rican in the greatest city in the world. Every float, every car, every delegation was playing reggaeton, salsa, merengue, boleros, and Bad Bunny. Everywhere you went you heard Bad Bunny. People were dancing bomba and plena and bachata. There were chants of “Puerto Rico!” and “¡No se vende! ” I waved at all the beautiful people, and when we passed the apartment building where my former benefactor lived all those years ago, I shouted out an extra-loud “¡Wepa! 

For 35 blocks, we were as loud as we wanted to be, and nobody could tell us nothing. And then we got to the end of the route. The crowd thinned out and the blockades ended, and we were met with a giant traffic sign illuminated with the words Quiet Please.

This article appears in the September 2022 print edition with the headline “Let Brooklyn Be Loud.”