Global Observer

Sounds and the city: aural heritage vs. noise pollution

Sounds and the city: aural heritage vs. noise pollution

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MEXICO CITY -- A new exhibit aims to preserve the unique sounds of the city's neighborhoods, even as the government dedicates a new force to policing noise pollution.


MEXICO CITY – This chaotic capital rarely whispers.

Mexico City howls, roars, whistles, wails, shouts and sings. These noises and infinite others –- nuisances to many -– make the metropolis sound like nowhere else.

How Mexico City sounds is part of the country's cultural patrimony, according to the Fonoteca Nacional, the National Sound Archive, whose latest exposition features "aural landscapes" of the capital's neighborhoods. The exhibit coincides with a new effort to enforce a law limiting noise in the city –– the government's latest attempt to make the historic center more livable and increasingly attractive to higher dollar shoppers.

"Sound goes unperceived, since people are more visual," said Daniel Goldaracena, who collected dozens of recordings and curated a selection of 20. "The truth is, people aren't used to thinking about sound." The exhibit pairs the recordings with photos, also by Goldaracena; visitors listen through headphones except in one room where the eerie sounds of a ceremony for the Santisima Muerte play.

From the metro and the centro historico, to a cemetery and the ceremony celebrating "Holy Death" –– worshipped in secret by Mexico City's poorest residents –– one constant across the urban sprawl is music, whether in the vendor selling pirated CDs on the train or the banda playing for the recently departed.

"That patrimony is completely ours," Goldaracena said. "There are so many street musicians and we don't even realize it."

Yet when it comes to sounds in the city, plenty are unpleasant. Unlike in New York where drivers can be fined heavily for honking in certain residential areas, Mexico City residents get no such respite. And it's not just traffic. Businesses including pharmacies, car dealerships, and clothing stores routinely install speakers at their entrances and turn up the music full blast in hopes of attracting customers; where zoning laws are barely enforced, and businesses mix with residences, it's increasingly a quality-of-life issue.

That Mexico City's streets are often too clamorous for comfort is the motivation behind a new police force dedicated to fining people and businesses that break a law limiting noise.

Officers armed with "decibelimetros" will patrol the city's historic center, where noise pollution reaches its highest levels. "Combating acoustic contamination" is part of the city’s long-term Green Plan, according to a city statement.

A 2006 law restricts noise levels to 65 decibels during the day and 62 decibels at night, but judging from the way stores blast music just blocks from City Hall, it has never been enforced.

(For comparison: Recent research suggests that a moderate level of ambient noise, around 70 decibels, can boost concentration on creative projects, while higher levels, above 85 decibels, hurt it. The sounds of a freight train or motorcycle, food blender or garbage disposal all top 80 decibels.)

And yet the Fonateca Nacional, created in 2008 and housed in a former residence of the poet Octavio Paz, is dedicated to preserving the sounds, music, radio and other audio with documentary value. According to a spokeswoman, Mexico's National Sound Archive is one of just three such institutions globally; the other two are in France and Switzerland.

Part of its mission is to preserve sounds that could be headed for extinction, as cities modernize and certain customs disappear.

The roaring –- and thoroughly Mexican –- sounds of the evening commute aren't one of those endangered species: The growling engine of the pesero bus, the creak of the gear shift, the low chatter of passengers, rock en español blaring through powerful speakers -– it's a mix that lulls weary workers as they doze and await the softer sounds of home.

Photo by Matthew Rutledge

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Lauren Villagran

Correspondent (Mexico City)

Lauren Villagran has written for the Associated Press, Dallas Morning News and Christian Science Monitor. She holds a degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure