The Impact of Transportation Noise on Charlottesville’s West Main Neighborhoods in the 1970s

In the 1970s a number of Charlottesville business owners and residents complained about what they felt were the deteriorating physical, economic, and social conditions in the city’s West Main Street Area. In response, Charlottesville’s mayor, Nancy O’Brien, organized a task force with the University of Virginia (UVA) that would “define the nature and extent of current problems and their causes in the corridor and to develop a set of feasible [their italics] guidelines and strategies to guide private business and public agencies in the improvement of the area.”

On June 1977, the Central Piedmont Urban Observatory (CPUO) published their findings in a report titled West Main Street: Present Conditions and Future Prospects. Authored by Yale Rabin, professor in UVA’s Urban and Environmental Planning Department, the report provided information on West Main’s commercial activity and four main residential areas: Wertland, Westhaven, Starr Hill, and “Other” (an area that lay south of West Main Street). It documented the area’s natural environment, lack of landscaping, architectural, quality, quality of building environment, historic buildings, “zones of visual continuity,” and “infrastructure” and provided a number of short- and long-range public and private improvement ideas.

The CPUO also interviewed 100 of the 1,505 residents who lived in Wertland (42 interviewed), Westhaven (32), Starr Hill (13), and Other (13) in order to document their concerns and frustrations. What the residents mentioned were lack of parking space, traffic congestion, crime, lack of recreational space, and noise.

None of these issues seems noteworthy on their own, however residents of West Main complained about noise at a surprising level. The 32 residents surveyed in Westhaven found noise to be more of an issue than crime and the 13 residents of Other found noise to be just as equal a problem as crime.

This comparison between noise and crime is shocking. The CPUO dedicated an entire chapter (10 pages) to document the types of crime, perceptions of crime, and where crimes were committed on West Main. Given the economic and social conditions of the area, you would expect crime to be a problem. Presumably it was one of the issues that motivated the formation of the CPUO in the first place. However, West Main residents found noise a substantial problem as well.

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Yale Rabin, West Main Street: Present Conditions and Future Prospects (Charlottesville, VA: Central Piedmont Urban Observatory, 1977), 5.

Thomas A. Conger, Alternatives for Charlottesville: The City Planning Department's Master Plan Recommendations (City Planning Department, 1971), 3, 6.

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Unfortunately, the CPUO does not provide the reasons for the noise complaints. What types of noises did West Main residents find annoying? What were their sources? Where did they hear these noises?

In order to answer these questions, I turned to a number of archives and sources. Initially I looked in the Nancy O’Brien papers and the Jefferson Cable Archives at UVA’s Small Special Collections Library. The Jefferson Cable Archives apparently holds two video recordings taken during a city council meetings related to noise on March 18, 1974. I submitted three digitization requests, the earliest on October 30, however never heard back. The Nancy O’ Brien papers also did not provide much information. A number of letters allude to her interest in addressing noise complaints, however do not illuminate sources of noise.

I also tried to find specific noise complaints made in the 1970s. Princeton University’s Emily Thompson has created an interactive historical map of 1920s Manhattan where you can view noise complaints filed with the police, where they occurred, and the nature of the complaint. Using her research as a model, I initially called the Charlottesville Police Department to see if they had noise complaint records from the 1970s. They only keep records that date back to 1997, but they directed me to the City Clerk’s office. The City Clerk directed me to the City Court. The City Court directed me to the District Court, and after a nice afternoon stroll around Charlottesville’s Court Square, the District Court told me to inquire with the Police Department. Locating the sources of noise that would have made West Main residents so annoyed seemed out of reach. However, I ultimately came across a separate report titled Alternatives for Charlottesville: The City Planning Department's Master Plan Recommendations.

Alternatives for Charlottesville specifically deals with transportation issues in Charlottesville. Created in 1971 by Thomas A. Conger, the director of the city’s City Planning Department, the report laments the growing prominence of the personal automobile and highway. Citing planners and theorists such as Victor Gruen, Lewis Mumford, Ian McHarg, Webb S. Fiser, and Francis Bello, Conger argues that “the taming of the motorcar is essential to the amelioration of our urban problems.”  Conger points out that “already 46.6 of the 114 acres, or 41% of the total land area in Charlottesville’s Central Business District, is abandoned to the car in the form of streets, alleys, and parking lots.” If the city continued to follow the advice of highway advocates, Conger feared that “Charlottesville could become another planning catastrophe.”  

                      

Honger cites many reasons to eschew the automobile. Mumford, for instance, argues that highways do not actually provide much relief from traffic congestion and stagnation. In fact, he argues that they create even more bottlenecks and congestion. McHarg argues passionately that highway planners destroy a landscape’s beautiful rivers and valleys. Additionally, they rend a city’s historic areas and buildings, parks, and cohesive neighborhoods. However, Honger provides an additional reason that moves beyond the inefficient or aesthetic explanations that Mumford and McHarg give.

Automobiles create pollution. Honger points out that “extensive research has revealed a direct relationship between continued use of the private car and the quality of the air we breathe.” However, he is concerned not only with air pollution, but also noise pollution: “noise pollution is also significantly contributed to by traffic sounds. This noise can have many adverse effects, including damage to hearing.” In order to argue his point, he provides information recently released a year prior by the Environmental Protection Agency.

On December 4, 1970, the United States federal government began a massive effort to protect the American people from the effects of pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initially focused on environmental pollution concerns. However, by 1972, Congress passed the Noise Pollution and Abatement Act. The statute, whose enforcement fell under the purview of the EPA, served three main purposes: 1) establish a means for effective coordination of Federal research and activities in noise control; 2) authorize the establishment of Federal noise emission standards for products distributed in commerce; 3) provide information to the public regarding the noise emission and noise reduction characteristics of such products.

The Noise Control Act was monumental because previously all levels of the American government curtailed noise by enforcing “nuisance laws.” Historians Lilian Radovac and Clare Corbould have shown how, at least in New York City, the police and judicial system tended to restrict “nuisance” due to its racial or political content. Harlem soapbox preachers and the jazz music coming from the upstairs apartment was nuisance, and thus noise. The Chopin played on the piano creeping up from the apartment below was music, not noise.

However, on August 1970, the EPA released the First Annual Report of the Council on Environmental Quality. In it, they hoped to introduce scientific and unbiased ways of curtailing noise, irrespective of origins or context. Suddenly noise emissions by aircraft, HVAC equipment, and motor vehicles was not only regulated, but became available to the public. In theory, although not always in practice, the Noise Control Act introduced an unbiased way of curtailing noise, irrespective of origins or context.

The EPA influenced Honger, who published their findings in his Alternatives for Charlottesville in order to demonstrate the effect of automobile noise on human hearing. The list includes a number of sound sources, including jet takeoffs and discotheques. But most of the sources pertain to transportation. Light auto traffic emits 50 dBs at 50 feet; freight trains and freeway traffic both emit 70 dBs at 50 feet; heavy trucks emit 90 dBs at 90 feet; and auto horns 110 dBs at 3 feet.  

Using this data, my project investigates the extent to which traffic in Charlottesville impacted West Main residents during the 1970s. Specifically, I look at the impact automobiles, freight trains, heavy trucks, and horns might have had on the neighborhood. A number of auto repair shops also existed on West Main and so I calculated the impact a pneumatic drill might have also had on the neighborhood and several specific points, such as West Main’s grocery stores, churches, and nightclubs. Finally, I show the specific areas that were susceptible to one or more noise sources and how wide-spread transportation noise on West Main could have been. I conclude by showing that Westhaven, the neighborhood whose residents complained the most about noise, had 99.25% of its entire land area susceptible to noise. This was the most out of any of the four districts. I also conclude that transportation noise might not have extended into individual’s homes. Rather, it was most forceful in areas directly adjacent to West Main Street, perhaps demonstrating the extent to which West Main residents spent a good deal walking to work, waiting for public transport, or congregating outside of storefronts.

Ultimately, this project only provides one focused look at noise sources in West Main during the 1970s. For instance, the analysis does not take into consideration the buildings that might have deflected or refracted noise. Nor does it provide an answer to why other neighborhoods might have been annoyed by noise. For example, transportation noise covered only 67% of Wertland. However, residents still made heavy complaints about noise. Something other than transportation traffic must have been impacting Wertland. I suspect it might be attributed to the growing increase in student housing in the area, but am not sure. 

In order to make a historical study of noise complaints in Charlottesville, I needed more historical documents. I asked the University of Virginia Digital Production Staff to scan a map created in 1973 by Charlottesville’s Department of Community Development. I also found locations of car repair shops that were operational in the area (at least as early as 1962) and the locations of some points of interest that were operational in the 1970s. A Safeway, a Sears, and the historic Albermarle Hotel were among some of West Main’s notable landmarks.

I first georeferenced the map to the Virginia South State Plane projection and then geocoded the addresses of the points of interest. I then brought in polylines of roads and railroads provided by the City of Charlottesville in 2015 and edited them to better fit the historic map. A number of intersections at Ridge and Preston Avenue, for instance, did not exist in 1973, so I either deleted the polylines or redrew them.

After manually drawing polygons that outlined the physical dimensions of Westhaven, Wertland, Starr Hill, and Other, I joined a table with data from the 100 interviews. From this I was able to create a number of pie graphs that depicted each neighborhood’s racial demographics and the residents’ complaints.

Next, I created a buffer that extended from every road and railroad in the West Main area to help show the possible impact of transportation noise. Anybody inside the buffer would be susceptible to the noise emitted from any one of the various sources. The EPA classified 60 decibels as the level that humans found noise “intrusive,” so I figured that would be the level at which West Main residents would complain. Using the data provided by Honger, I calculated the distance at which a specific noise would make 60 decibels. For example, if a car emits 50 decibels at 50 feet, how far would you have to be to, at least, hear the car at 60 decibels? Using the following formula, I calculated such distances for all my noise sources. The distance found would become my distance buffer:

Once I had this value for every noise source, I created my buffer that would show the distance that the noise would cover. Theoretically, West Main residents would have heard, at 60 decibels, one of the many Mercedes Benz or Bluebird city busses along West Main as far as 1581 feet away, the train from 158 feet, and a car horn from 95 feet away. I also calculated the sound of a pneumatic drill from several fixed automobile locations. West Main residents would hear any of them from 500 feet away.

Ibid., 4-5.

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Clare Corbould, "Streets, Sounds and Identity in Interwar Harlem," Journal of Social History 40, no. 4 (Summer 2007); Lilian Radovac, "The "War on Noise": Sound and Space in La Guardia's New York," American Quarterly 53, no. 3 (September 2011).

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Ibid., 10-11.

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Finally, I drew two conclusions from my buffer analysis. In the first instance, I merged all the sound sources together but excluded the CAT buses since they emitted noise that covered the entirety of the West Main area. Then I merged the buffers together to create a total buffer where any West Main resident would hear any sound source. Then I clipped that buffer against the four neighborhoods so that I could show two areas: one impacted by noise and one that was noise-free. I then calculated what percentage of each four neighborhoods’ total area was susceptible to noise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Westhaven, which complained the most about noise, was the neighborhood with the least noise-free areas.

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I next created a “heat map,” showing the areas where numerous sound sources overlapped. I created a union of the buffers and then downloaded an ArcGIS tool called “Count Overlapping Polygons” that would show how many overlapping buffers there were in a certain area. Although I have five sound sources (car, CAT bus, car horn, auto repair drill, and train), there are areas where residents would have heard nine different sound sources at once. This is because they may have been in ear-range of multiple auto repair shops and both of the train lines that passed through West Main. My heat map shows me that the location where residents likely heard the most amount noise was across the street from the Safeway on 9th and West Main. This area, which straddles the “Other” and Westhaven suggests that maybe the noise that complained about did not necessarily enter their homes. Rather, they were most the most intrusive while West Main residents did their shopping, tended to their stores, waited for the bus, or walked to and from work. This may provide some insight into the sociological nature of West Main residents. Where did they spend their time? Do people who live in poverty tend to spend more time outdoors? Should we consider “outside” space, then, an extension of someone’s home? 

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  • Landmark identification (Mall, Court Square, Rotunda)

  • Character of development (single-family, multi-family)

  • Economic characteristic (race, age, status, history)

  • Individual identification (individual and family)

  • Group identification (neighborhood association, church, club)

  • Cultural identification (Italian, Jewish)

 

In a Comprehensive Plan of Charlottesville created in 1979, the Department of Community Development conclude “there are many criteria for defining neighborhoods. The following is a list of some of these:

  • Man-made physical boundaries (road, rail)

  • Natural characteristics (trees)

  • Natural boundaries (river, flood plain, topography)

  •  Political boundaries (ward, electoral districts)

  • Legal boundaries (corporate boundary,

       Federal or State property)

  • Service boundary (school, park, health, police, fire)

  • Age of area (old, new)

  • Land use change (residential to commercial or industrial)

Department of Community Development, Comprehensive Plan (1979), 35.

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Unsurprisingly, the authors do not include noise as a criterion for defining a neighborhood. However, the impact of noise concerned many West Main residents. What if instead of trying to alleviate crime or poverty, community leaders tried to deter noise first and foremost? And what if they reclassified neighborhoods according to, not whether they lied within certain geographic boundaries, but whether they were susceptible to certain noises? Westland, Wertland, Starr Hill, and “Other” would no longer be defined by their demographics or how they lie in relation to 14th Street, Grady Avenue, or the train tracks. Rather, their boundaries would be redrawn and defined by an underappreciated criterion: the noise and sounds that those neighborhoods share in common.