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2006 08 15
Night of the Living Air Conditioners
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Considerable attention has been paid to the challenges of light pollution in the greater Toronto area and its effects on human and ecological health. Less attention, for some reason, is paid to the problem of noise pollution. The City of Toronto does enforce a rather comprehensive noise by-law, and in 2003 recognised "Noise Awareness Day", but for the most part the City treats noise as a nuisance rather than acknowledging the ways it can be a peace-destroying and debilitating urban intrusion.

Noise pollution in cities is not new. In Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (Columbia University Press, 1974) the eminent geographer Yi-Fu Tuan reports that "according to Juvenal [the Roman satirist and poet] the incessant din of night traffic condemned sensitive Romans to everlasting insomnia," and describes cities throughout history as characterized by a "perpetual hum" of construction, toil, traffic, church bells, and street criers, producing a "total cacaphony." And yet, even if modern cities are not necessarily quantitatively more noisy than they have been historically, something important has changed. Tuan observes of modern cities that "little of the noise is human."

Where we live, in the Junction area of Toronto, the night is alive with the crashing and banging of train cars coupling and separating like great prehistoric beasts in the district's rail yards. It's a sound I enjoy, having lived as a child near the Greenwood TTC yards and having listened early each morning to the eerie, primordial shrill of the streetcars shunting to life, an urban echo of choruses of spring peepers calling from rural bogs and ox-bow lakes. There's an organic quality to these sounds, something that connects the city to its wilder roots, to the behemoth rising through the underbrush. They are sounds that sharpen, rather than muffle, the voices and silences of the city. They clarify the shape of the city, too, by attuning us to distance as well as danger. Despite their mechanical source, these sounds are human, or human-scaled, in the sense that they are both comprehensible and embodied.

At night I like to lie in bed listening into the darkness. A few weeks ago the city's crickets emerged from their carapaces and began to signal the summer's turning. They call all night, their voices stilled occasionally by footfalls or the low muttering of raccoons shambling along the laneway. The night wind rattles the leaves outside my window, until the Virginia Creeper divulges its secrets. In the distance a siren or a shout warns of distant dangers. I can hear for miles.

But last night I didn't hear any of these sounds. Last night I lay awake listening to the buffered blast of air conditioning units up and down the street. Entire legions could have marched up and down the hall, bagpipes furling, and I would not have heard a note. Raccoons could have coursed throughout the house tossing rice and cat food and I would not have known. A Katyusha could have landed in the living room and I would have remained somnolent because I was already drowing in white noise, subdued by one of the most inhuman sounds in the city, the sound of an air conditioner.

It is not that air conditioners aren't necessary in this city, especially when even the evenings offer no relief from the thick and oily air and the night smells of heated pavement and spoiled vegetation. But last night the temperature dipped to fifteen degrees Celsius, a cool night after a rain, a perfect temperature for sleeping with the windows open. It seemed to me that air conditioners were left on out of habit or a more troubling cringing away from the uncertainties of weather. After 2:00 am I reluctantly shut the window and turned on the overhead fan, knowing that otherwise there would be no sleeping at all. And so I missed sounds I don't even know about: shopping carts being dragged and dropped in the alley, raccoons tipping over the salvaged porch pillars in our back garden, sirens on Dundas Street, the rusty voice of our little old cat, Quint, crying to be let in. On another night or in another lifetime I might have missed the sound of a gunshot a block or a doorway away, or a child bumping down the stairs, or the stealthy thump of some intruder rummaging in the closets.

There are sounds in this city that awaken us to its shape and character moving around us, that bring the city into sharp aural relief, a soundscape as readable as any map. But there are other sounds that muffle and conceal, and that lull and deafen us to the city's movements. It seems to me that the worst of these is air conditioning units left on unnecessarily during cool summer nights.
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 08/15 at 10:50 AM

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