The music of human life

We should preserve the new city soundscape even after this crisis and social distancing end.

When I was a kid, I saw the show STOMP at the theater. STOMP is a musical performance in which the only instruments are everyday objects such as brooms and trash cans. It was inspired by the sounds of city life. I fell in love with each note and with the idea that music is everywhere; you just have to listen for it. 

But not all everyday sounds are quite so melodic. Earlier this year, I was hit by a car. I was in the middle of the crosswalk, passing in front of a car stopped at the stop sign, when I heard the sound of brakes squealing and metal crunching. Before I even had time to register what was about to happen, I was on the ground several feet away, shaking from the shock and completely numb. I fled the scene in a panic, and only after the adrenaline had subsided did I realize I needed medical attention. (Thankfully, an x-ray showed nothing was broken. But my spine and pelvis were badly misaligned, and the entire left side of my body was so bruised that even applying light pressure there was painful. After eight sessions with a chiropractor and physical therapist, I’m mostly back to normal.) 

For weeks after the incident, I avoided busy streets, because suddenly, the sounds of cars weren’t just the background noise of the city, they were a threat. Once I was well enough to run again, I chose car-free routes such as Chicago’s 606, a bike path and pedestrian walkway that’s elevated above street level. That way, I could avoid cars pulling dangerously far into an intersection, or rushing out of alleyways.

Then, with the coronavirus pandemic looming, Chicago began to social distance and we were forced to retreat into our homes. 

The sound of the city changed. With fewer cars on the road, there is less noise from traffic. Scientists from around the world have actually measured decreases in noise of up to 60% in some cities. I don’t know if the birds were always singing and we just couldn’t hear them, or if they’d given up trying to be heard over the din, but now, as I work by my bedroom window, they serenade me with chirping and trills. As I walk to the grocery store, salsa and jazz drift out of windows. I hear windows slide open and thump closed. Picnic blankets crack as they’re whipped open and laid down on a front lawn. My neighbor’s soccer ball thunk-thunks against her feet. Bicycle tires whir as they zoom by. I swear I can even hear when rain lands on the grass. These are the sounds of a city, the sounds that inspired STOMP. 

This crisis has revealed that cities aren’t by their nature loud, stressful places. Cities are full of the music of human life. They’re about bringing people together, and the way we build our cities should reflect that. 

When this pandemic is over and we can return to our normal lives, I hope we don’t go all the way back. I hope that the cars don’t flood the streets. I hope that when the restaurants re-open, I’ll be able to hear the clink of glasses across the boulevard, the soft hum of conversation. I hope the sound of children playing in the park at the end of my block doesn’t get drowned out by the rush of noisy vehicles zipping around avenues designed for them, not for pedestrians like me. I hope, starting now, all of us city dwellers ask the question, do the sounds of our city echo our priorities, or not?