Damnation by Decibel

From hear to eternity, Miami is hell on your aural health

The question of exactly what role noise plays in causing these symptoms is unclear, however. It's nearly impossible to account for all the other possible factors, according to Robert Dobie, a professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine and an authority on the noise-health connection. "If your neighbor is playing music quietly but you hate the music and you hate your neighbor, your blood pressure goes up," Dobie said.

Noise doesn't get much respect as a civic issue. It's recognized as a "controllable pollutant" by the federal Noise Control Act of 1972, and the Environmental Protection Agency is empowered to set noise emission standards, but when was the last time you heard a politician — outside New York — talking about noise? In Miami, most after-hours noise complaints go to the police, who, unlike code enforcement officers, carry no sound meters to gauge the severity of the problem. Usually the cops can persuade neighbors to compromise, said Miami City Police spokesman Det. Delrish Moss. "I've been here 21 years now, and I've seen one or two situations that went beyond that."

Spend a little time with Brian Clemens of the Miami-Dade Public Works Department and you'll understand the abusive power of noise. On a recent Thursday morning, Clemens was standing over a jackhammer, burrowing a concrete hole for a new stop sign at NE Second Avenue and Sixteenth Street. The sound — about 95 decibels' worth — was enough to rattle skulls. After silencing the beast, Clemens admitted his heavy-duty earphones can't keep the noise out of his head. Even after work, he said, "You sure hearing that pop-pop-pop in your ears."

Tomas Perez can't escape the sound of chattering birds. Sometimes, he said, he hears them in his dreams after a long day running Yara Pet Shop at the Opa-locka Flea Market. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, gray-breasted parakeets, finches, love birds, and about twenty other avian varieties sang and squeaked in a cacophony approaching 75 decibels as Perez tried to fix an outside awning and one of his employees swept parrot droppings out of a cage. The birds settle down only after Perez flips the light switch and closes for the day. The big macaw in the corner doesn't seem to ever go quiet, constantly chatting to himself in a loop of greetings: "How's it going? How's it going? How's it going?"

After years of using heavy equipment, landscaper Pedro Ynigo, age 51, is partially deaf in one ear. He doesn't bother wearing ear mufflers — "too sweaty," he said from the helm of a riding mower. Ynigo was tending to the lawn around the West Dade Regional Library in Westchester on a Tuesday afternoon. Noise from the mower, capable of whining around 93 decibels, and the even-louder blower are simply part of the job, not something to dwell on, Ynigo said with a shrug. "It's like a butcher. Do you get tired of the blood?"

For better or worse, noise is the pulse of Miami. It's the raw material of identity and the harbinger of change. Miami is the electrified music and sermonizing that spill out of the World Mission of Jesus Christ in Little Haiti at 82 decibels around midnight on a Friday. It's the reggaeton beat and rattling 90-decibel exhaust that make old folks roll up their windows when 25-year-old Rick Morales revs his 480-horsepower Mustang in Miami Gardens. "[People in Miami] like the music loud, the cars loud, everything loud," Morales said.

It's the sound of condominium construction sites buzzing with cranes, pile drivers, and backhoes. Take for example a stretch of Collins Avenue near 159th Street in Sunny Isles Beach. On a Monday morning, six different high-rise construction sites generated an 85-decibel wall of sound. Mario Diaz, age 32, construction supervisor for a 37-story project, surveyed the scene unimpressed. Listen to the four lanes of traffic speeding by, Diaz said. The city's noise problem isn't development, he opined, it's the traffic that development brings.

You'd probably agree with Diaz if you lived in Fairway Lakes Village just north of Sweetwater. On a Tuesday morning, workers were erecting a concrete sound barrier between the housing development and the intersection of the Dolphin Expressway and 107th Avenue — a combined eight lanes of traffic — only yards away. Ranging from the mid-to-high seventies in decibels, construction noise was barely audible over the roar of the roadway.

Farther south, in Homestead, you could easily miss the sound of Bruce Nadeau's John Deere tractor — about 78 decibels — plowing a field for sweet corn. Here, amid a sea of red tile roofs parted only by Florida's Turnpike, Nadeau is one of a dying breed. It's the last year he'll plant this leased twenty-acre plot wedged among under-construction cinder-block apartment buildings with names like Portofino West and Malibu Bay. Stepping off the tractor, 36-year-old Nadeau wiped his oil-stained hands on his flannel shirt and shouted over four lanes of traffic noise from Campbell Drive. The land's owner is selling, he said. Fifteen years ago, when he first began farming here, an acre went for about $10,000. Now developers will pay $100,000, $300,000, even $600,000, Nadeau said.

"That used to be all potatoes and corn," he said, sweeping his arm toward the red roofs. "This is it. There's no more land."

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