The Sounds Of New York City, Circa 1920 : The Two-Way A team led by Emily Thompson, a history professor at Princeton, has matched noise complaints from New York City in the Roaring '20s with the actual street sounds of the day.
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The Sounds Of New York City, Circa 1920

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The Sounds Of New York City, Circa 1920

The Sounds Of New York City, Circa 1920

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Finally this hour, the roar of New York in the roaring '20s. Emily Thompson is professor of history at Princeton University, and she's been mapping the sounds, not the music, but the sounds of New York City in the late 1920s and early '30s, specifically the sounds that drove people crazy.

EMILY THOMPSON: I do have one favorite noise complaint. A man named Mr. Schmuck called to complain about the noise of the Colonial Pickle Works Factory, where he lived in Brooklyn. And somehow that just seems quintessentially New York to me.


Thompson, with Web designer Scott Mahoy, collected those noise complaints along with old newsreels and created a sound map of New York, block by block. There's the street peddler buying old clothes on the Lower East Side.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Old clothes. Old clothes.


BLOCK: A woman leans out her window to sell the peddler one of her husband's old suits.




UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Look, it's good suit.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: 75 cents.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, no, no. Look. See?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ninety cents.

CORNISH: Then there are the street preachers in Greenwich Village.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The Salvation Army believes in old time religion.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Isn't that so? Say, hallelujah.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Praise God for the old time religion. It changes a man's life. A man who has been a drunkard becomes a sober man.

CORNISH: And in those days, his chief competition for the ears of New Yorkers...


CORNISH: Construction. Lots of it.

BLOCK: There were also plenty of kids.

MARGERY: I'm glad you won, brother.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I congratulate you, too, for winning, Margery.

BLOCK: A brother and sister after winning a race at Hamilton Fish Park.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: We sure did clean up for dear old Brooklyn.

MARGERY: Ma and pa will be happy too.

CORNISH: And with all the noise all over the city...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Forty, 41, 42.

CORNISH: Something had to be done.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The noise in Times Square deprives us of 42 percent of our hearing.

BLOCK: So, New York established a noise abatement commission in 1929. Here, a man uses a phonograph to help him measure the din of midtown Manhattan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I will now let you hear the warbling test tone by which we determine the amount of deafness due to noise.

THOMPSON: Ultimately, the noise abatement commission was not considered to have successfully solved the problem of noise in New York as anyone who's been there today can testify.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Everybody quiet and I'll (unintelligible) quiet.

CORNISH: Noise then. But today, these sounds captured on Emily Thompson's Roaring Twenties website are a real pleasure.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Singing) To buy my baby's home.

CORNISH: We'll leave you with this man and his ukulele, Coney Island, on a hot day in June, 1930.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Singing) She bought a limousine. I buy her gasoline. Oh, boy, that's where my money goes.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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