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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

One Man Muffler in the Noisy Bronx

Air Date: Week of

John Dallas is a one-man crusader against unnecessary noise pollution in his neighborhood in the Bronx, New York. Dallas says noise displays anti-social behavior, and impinges on others more peaceful pursuits. Neal Rauch reports.


CURWOOD: With all the power and complexity in national politics, there are still plenty of ordinary citizens who are making a positive difference for society. Even in what many would call bad neighborhoods. Consider John Dallas. He lives in New York's South Bronx, our modern icon of urban squalor and poverty. Mr. Dallas doesn't have much money to give away or a brilliant plan to stop the ravages of crime and drug abuse. But he does bring his community peace by working to clean up the environment of sound. From the Bronx, Neal Rauch has our report.

(A dog barks)

DALLAS: Imagine music from the bodegas downstairs inside and outside, and then on top of that you have people sitting on the stoops with music blasting from their portable radios. Then you have cars that are parked where the car stereos are being used as jukeboxes essentially...

RAUCH: For the last year and a half, John Dallas has been waging a campaign against noise in the South Bronx. He's been called a one-man muffler. Among his targets are stores with outdoor speakers.

(Music plays loudly)

MIKE: Generally I just play music. People walk down, they see it. If it just makes them turn their heads just a little bit, it would be better for me if they didn't.

RAUCH: Mike runs a one-hour photo and variety store on the strip. More of a problem than his moderate music, though, is the guy in front of the store he sometimes rents space to: a DJ who sells bootlegged tapes. That man cranks up his 300-watt sound system with 12-inch speakers. It can be heard up to 2 blocks away.

MIKE: The police have arrested him and taken his equipment on several occasions. But he still feels that it's necessary to conduct his business, to attract attention to his business.

DALLAS: I disagree with that. I mean either you want to buy something here or you don't. I don't see where music enhances the business.

RAUCH: John Dallas says peace and quiet should take a priority over anyone's short-term profits.

DALLAS: The values of peace and quiet are manifold and absolutely wonderful. If we want to get in touch with ourselves, know who we really are, have peace of mind, then you need peace and quiet to do that. It's important to my spirituality, and I feel it's important to everybody else's quest for their identity.

RAUCH: He admits that most people don't associate the South Bronx with an anti-noise movement, since there are so many other problems. But Mr. Dallas doesn't feel that noise should only be of concern to the suburbs or Park Avenue. Noise can be harmful to everyone.

DALLAS: Noise is hazardous to educational achievement. In a neighborhood where one of the few honorable passages out of this place is a good education, not that we have the best public schools here, but noise interferes with people being able to concentrate to do their homework. To focus on the task at hand.

RAUCH: And he sees noise as symptomatic of the community's other ills.

DALLAS: In many cases, people that are involved in this community in illegal activities, I feel will purposely blast the music to challenge, to flout the law. It can be used as a way of intimidating and terrorizing people.

RAUCH: John Dallas goes on to say that when people can get away with minor things like noise, then they may be encouraged to commit more antisocial acts. But the question that keeps coming up: with all the crime problems in the South Bronx, do the police have time to bother with noise complaints?

THOMAS: Yes. We do.

RAUCH: Inspector Ryan Thomas, commanding officer of the 44th Precinct.

THOMAS: It's not our highest priority, but it's certainly something that detracts from the quality of life throughout the whole neighborhood, and it's something that we do address.

RAUCH: Inspector Thomas has nothing but praise for Mr. Dallas and his crusade.

THOMAS: With people like John who are interested and willing to help, certainly loud and extreme noise can become the exception instead of the rule. In many respects, you know, he's the conscience of the community.

RAUCH: John Dallas also helps others by mediating disputes and giving out advice.

DALLAS: Hello!

BERLIN: Who is it?

DALLAS: It's John Dallas.


(A door is unbolted)

DALLAS: Hello Mrs. Berlin, how are you?

BERLIN: I'm fine.

RAUCH: Joyce Berlin has lived in her Bronx apartment for over 30 years. For the last three and a half years, she's been suffering from noisy tenants above her who have a loud stereo and loud grandchildren.

BERLIN: I'm a very heavy person right now, and I have a very thick and new mattress in my bedroom with a headboard. Do you know my bed was moving with me in it? Every day it starts around 2, 2:30. Most of the time it sounds like they're lifting heavy, massive pieces of furniture and letting it drop, or that they're playing ball with a bowling ball. My stomach is completely ruined; my system, I'm depressed, I'm angry at my friends.

RAUCH: When she tried going to court, the judge told her that her daily records of the noise were not enough, and that she needs someone to corroborate her story. But Joyce Berlin doesn't know anyone who would agree to do this. So John Dallas suggests she hire someone to sit with her, and then be a witness.

DALLAS: If there's some young kid who wants to earn a couple of dollars, if he could sit with you a couple of afternoons --

BERLIN: I might do that --

DALLAS: -- a couple of hours, twice a week. And you tell him: I need you to hear the noise. Listen to the noise.

BERLIN: I will try that. I will go in this week to the community center myself...

RAUCH: Later Mr. Dallas says it's situations like this that keep him going.

DALLAS: Isn't that a shame? I mean a senior citizen on a fixed income and these are supposed to be her golden years, her years of relaxation. And she can't even rest under the roof in her home. That really bothers me, that makes me very, very angry.

RAUCH: What started John Dallas on his campaign was his lack of success in finding his own quiet apartment. Over the last 5 years he's had to move 5 times. It's not that he expects total quiet in a part of New York City. He just thinks people should be more considerate.

DALLAS: I'm a salsa, big salsa fan. I love to dance, I love to listen to my music in the morning when I get up. But the volume is down so that other people aren't waking up with me; other people don't have to dance along with me.

RAUCH: Mr. Dallas conducts his anti-noise crusade by giving lectures to community groups, writing articles, and distributing a peace package.

DALLAS: How to live without disturbing your neighbors. And the prohibitions range from moving furniture around late at night in your apartment to not controlling your kids. So it's all these different forms of behavior that disturb the peace.

RAUCH: John Dallas, who works as a paralegal, has spent some $2,000 out of his own pocket to print and distribute the peace package. But he thinks it's certainly worth it.

DALLAS: This community is a lot quieter than before I started my campaign. Channel 9 came out. They wanted to do a report on noise in the South Bronx. And it was so quiet here that we had to go to another precinct for them to find the noise that they were looking for. So I thought that that was a very, very good sign.

RAUCH: For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.



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