The map below includes roughly 250,000 noise complaints in the Richmond area between 2007-2018.
Every point represents a judgement, a determination about whether or not a sound is “good” or “appropriate,” as well as a sense of privilege: “do I feel I have the right to the call police about this and can I expect a response in my favor?”
Noise complaints between 2007-2018. Source: FOIA to Richmond, VCU, Hanover, Chesterfield and Henrico Police.
Richmond’s noise ordinance was re-written in 2011 in response to a 2009 case the ACLU brought against the city of Virginia Beach on behalf of a venue that frequently booked hip-hop acts. Police frequently shut down these shows, citing the city’s noise ordinance, which the ACLU argued was unconstitutionally vague, defining noise as sound that would “disturb. . . or annoy the quiet, comfort or repose of persons of . . . reasonable sensitivity.” The old VA Beach ordinance included no mention of decibels, zoning or hours of the day. Enforcement thus defaulted to the whims and biases of police. The state supreme court found in favor of the ACLU (Bradley Tanner et al vs. City of VA Beach) in 2009 and other Virginia counties, hoping to head off similar suits, subsequently rewrote their ordinances. In 2011 Richmond passed a very restrictive ordinance which defined “excessive sound” as that which:
. . . exceeds 55 dBA during nighttime hours and . . . .65 dBA during daytime hours when measured inside a structure, or sound that exceeds 65 dBA during nighttime hours and . . . 75 dBA during daytime hours when
measured outside a structure. . . .
Partly as a consequence of Richmond’s problematic cultural and social history, Blackness—especially Black masculinity—is strongly associated with “noise.’ Indeed, the ordinance seems to single out this group based on stereotypes about their listening habits. Anyone playing music via a “loudspeaker” in their car must obtain a permit from the city—language that ostensibly regulates businesses such as ice-cream trucks. But in practice, the ordinance represents a means to control the widespread African American cultural practice of installing powerful car stereo systems. Based on my own observations living in a multiracial (forty percent African American) neighborhood in the city, hip hop is the primary genre played through car stereo systems, and it accounts for ninety percent of the music produced in the Richmond City Jail’s music studio program.
Low frequencies can engulf a space with diffuse energy, making it difficult to locate their source; they can seem to come from everywhere at once. When originating from mobile audio systems playing “noisy” rap, this sonic “invasion” of a territory can prick panic in neighborhoods historically zoned as White. The fact that much urban sound exceeds the ordinance’s very low threshold enables officers to instruct those who do not “know their place,” to “move along” (to quote a resident of the city jail) if they are thought to be outside of their proper territories. While in many American cities, race is both an auditory construction and a bodily orientation in space (Ahmed 2007: 158), identity in Richmond can be defined partly by inhabiting a certain sonic field.
Some of the participants in the jail studio program said that their arrest was tied to a noise complaint; responding to loud noise in a car or at a party, Richmond police may “run names” in their database to find outstanding warrants or arrest individuals for other offenses such as minor drug possession.
While further research on the data are needed, the map suggests that policing noise functions as a form of sonic “stop-and-frisk” in Richmond, a practice that has been ruled unconstitutional in other states (Goldstein 2013). Richmond’s current noise ordinance was crafted with such a low threshold that it functions in essentially the same way as the old, vague Virginia Beach ordinance; both enable uneven and targeted enforcement. In this context sound becomes a means to regulate public and private space and to establish and maintain affective boundaries between communities.
The video below shows a time-animation of noise complaints in the Richmond area (which can originate with an officer on duty), shortly before and after the passage of the restrictive ordinance in 2011. The experiences of African American jail residents, as expressed to me, suggest that the string-like pattern of complaints seen after the passage of ordinance reflect officer “shake downs” of African Americans playing music in their cars and portable stereos. (The city police department did not respond to my requests for comment.)
In his Pulitzer prize winning book Locking Up Our Own (2017) James Forman Jr. analyzes the use of similar “pre-text stops” in the metro DC area—usually based on arbitrary regulations regarding window tinting—that disproportionately impact African-American communities. Black drivers experience pre-text stops two and half times more often than White drivers. This practice has been documented across America. While the NYPD conducted over 47,000 stop-and-frisks in 2014, that same year they issued almost 75,000 traffic tickets for tinted windows. According to Forman, these numbers are “likely dwarfed by the number of drivers who. . . were stopped on suspicion of a minor offense and never received a ticket.” Once stopped, most people consent to a vehicle search, not understanding their right to refuse. While Whites and Blacks abuse drugs and carry weapons at comparable rates, racialized pre-text stops mean that Blacks are disproportionately convicted for the same crimes. In Richmond, sound is one way the police get in the door. Forman (2017:209-215).
The Privilege of Complaint
Noise complaint data is partly a representation of the ways residents enact their sonic privilege and respond to sonic injustice. An anecdote may help explain this point: I have often taken my students to NASA’s acoustics lab in Langley, a ninety-minute drive to the east, where scientists have been working on developing “quiet” supersonic commercial aircraft that could fly cross-country.
Existing supersonic aircraft designs produce loud sonic booms that would violate local noise ordinances along the flightpath, resulting in high penalties. While NASA scientists have been mathematically modeling various designs that would produce less noise for years, they have also discovered that the problem is more complex than a simple measure of total decibels. In preliminary surveys, test subjects felt that some sonic booms were more irritating than others, even if they were the same volume.
This finding led the NASA acousticians to develop social-psychological experiments involving members of the local Hampton Roads community. Sitting in a mock living-room, participants rated how annoying they found various sonic boom simulations and how likely they would be to complain.
The scientists quickly found that subjects’ ratings were correlated with race; African American subjects were less likely to complain. As one scientist said,
“Maybe Ms. Kennedy, let’s call her that, knows the sheriff, or even her local senator. She knows she’ll get a hearing. But if you’re African American, you’re simply being a good scientist by not inviting the police into your neighborhood. You’re acting on evidence.”
By far the loudest sounds in Richmond come from the NASCAR raceway on the city’s northern border. In the stands the sound level is regularly around 100 dB, up to 130dB in the pits; races are clearly audible from my home on the other side of town, nine kilometers away. NASCAR is strongly associated with White working class and rural populations in the U.S., which makes its location in an overwhelmingly Black middle-class neighborhood in Richmond somewhat strange. Stranger still is the comparatively low number of noise complaints in the area. That these are officially sanctioned events likely leads potential complainants to assume there is no point in calling the police. However, this doesn’t stop some living around the University of Richmond, in one of the wealthiest and whitest parts of town, to complain about the sound of athletic events on campus. In the image below, the density of noise complaints is represented as a heat map. The spikes that we do see in the area don’t actually correlate with race days. African-American population density is represented in blue shading (darker = denser).
The strategic placement of the raceway and the community response to it express the intersection of sound, power and race in Richmond. Built in 1946 adjacent to neighborhoods that had been “redlined” as Black-only, the raceway has long functioned as a sonic expression of White power. The map below shows the placement of the raceway in relation to a 1940s era HOLC redlining map.
The racing of space and its economic and demographic consequences continue to manifest in sound. Today, redlined areas are louder, marked by persistent low frequency traffic and other anthropogenic noises. Greenlined areas remain verdant spaces distinguished by comparative silence and birdsong, as the spectrograms in image below indicate. The HOLC grades also correlate with heat vulnerability as well: if distressed and impoverished communities are the most vulnerable to rising temperatures this century, the bird-filled trees of Windsor Farms make it the coolest place in Richmond during the summer months.
Gentrification and Noise
By 2005, mid-twentieth century White flight from the city had run its course and younger Whites began moving back in, gentrifying Black neighborhoods. This coincided with the rapid expansion of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) campus into Jackson Ward and Randolph, which are historically Black middle-class neighborhoods, and the Fan, a wealthier and Whiter part of town. The strategic placement of student housing along the periphery of the campus has created a sonic frontier in which loud student lifestyles have led to an increase in noise complaints.
As documented in other American cities, loud student housing can have the effect of lowering adjacent property values, enabling the further expansion of the campus (Salkin and Levin 2010: 5; Austrian and Norton 2002: 36). The VCU police department’s “noise van,” which began operating in 2014, monitors and measures student noise, driving by housing complexes displaying a large sign stating “Warning: Noise Detection in Progress” on the side of the vehicle. The van primarily functions as a form of managing public relations with the surrounding community allowing the school to be seen as responding to community complaints, without taking consequential actions.
The demolition and new construction of campus buildings in the Jackson Ward area is also an expression of historic patterns of White privilege, creating loud noise in Black spaces, much like the aforementioned NASCAR racetrack does. Noise complaints are also rising in historically Black neighborhoods, such as Church Hill, that are being gentrified by White “hipsters” and professionals, many of whom had been raised in outlying suburbs. This demographic change introduced White bourgeois expectations, including the demand for domestic silence, into the inner-city.
The map below includes noise complaint data from the greater Richmond area, including VCU. Click on HERE for a fully interactive version, and filter for noise complaint type.
Ahmed, S. (2007), ‘A Phenomenology of Whiteness’, Feminist Theory, 8 (1): 149–168.
Austrian, Z. and J. Norton. (2002), Urban Universities and Real Estate Development, University of Cleveland: University of Cleveland Center for Economic Development.
Forman, James. 2017. Locking up Our Own. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Goldstein, J. (2013), ‘Judge Rejects New York’s Stop-and-Frisk Policy’, The New York Times. 13 August. Available online: https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:5940-7GK1-JBG3-6344-00000-00&context=1516831 (accessed 1 July 2020).
Salkin, P. and A. Levine. (2010), ‘Zoning for Off-Campus Fraternity and Sorority Houses’, Zoning and Planning Law Report, 33 (11): 1-12.