Living Next To

Living next to...a church bell tower: The shock of discovery occurred on a Sunday morning

By Margot Slade  | March 23, 2011 - 7:48AM

When we first saw the loft we eventually bought, we thought living next to a church in lower Manhattan would be convenient (my husband is Roman Catholic) and, in a way, charming.

And talk about a good neighbor.  It was a church, for heaven's sake, with priests and parishioners who cared about its upkeep and, well, religiously cleaned its sidewalk frontage and grounds.  The community room was in the basement and any late night activities, we figured, would be anything but drunk and disorderly. I mean, how raucous could a midnight mass get? 

What we didn't hear--not when we found the place, inspected it, not even when we closed on the deal--were the bells and carillon in the church tower that were under repair the entire time. 

The shock of discovery occurred on a Sunday morning. My husband and I were sleeping in after a long week of late nights. The only sound was the muffled ticking of an old beside clock and the gentle snore of our ancient cat. The clock's hands slowly stretch to 9 o'clock when the newly repaired church bells sound. Bong, bong, bong -- they tolled the full nine times. That was just the start, a prelude to the carillon concert--melodious, yes, but also loud--that followed.

I was startled awake, as the walls of our loft reverberated along with the fillings in my teeth. Remarkably, so was my husband. I say "remarkably," because he was known to sleep through virtually everything, including a thunderstorm directly overhead.

Now, I don't know how many people  reading this have seen "Mary Poppins" the movie or musical, and recall the scenes in which the neighbor, a former British Navy officer, fires his rooftop cannon, according to Greenwich Mean Time. In the home of the Banks children, Jane and Michael, it was all-hands to the vibrating, endangered vases and furniture.

Our cannonade wasn't as bad as that. But it was loud and regular, marking the hours throughout the day, with an extended sunset serenade before night. We didn't take to wearing earplugs--the tolling wasn't continuous, after all. We did start warning visitors, especially those who came for an extended stay, along with timing telephone conversations so as to avoid an interruption.

It was my husband who put the bell ringing in perspective, long before it evolved into a more abbreviated, before-and-after mass, a wedding and any other celebratory affair. Was it worse than living next to the Holland Tunnel or the West Side Highway, with their constant thrum and rumble of traffic, punctuated by the blare of car horns? How about a hospital emergency room, firehouse or police station, with sirens shrieking throughout a 24-hour day?

Sound is all around us, he said. Whether we can tolerate the music or cacophony of a particular place is really a matter of sensitivity and, in a way,personal preference and taste. 

It's been said that the human ear gets used to the sound of almost anything, the sound of the nearby subway, for example, fading into background noise. Whoever said that never lived next to a bell tower. We didn't get used to it. We did accept it as part of our world and, in a way, the small price we paid for the apartment we loved in the neighborhood we adored at the price we could afford.

Our advice to others is to listen before you leap, stake out your would-be neighborhood and building throughout the week at different times of day. Find out about events (parades, for example) that might affect your block. We've done just that wherever we've roamed over the post-bell tower years, understanding that noise or music, or even the profound silence that some (not us) find soothing can make or break the deal on the place we want to call home.      

Living Next to a....  is a series exploring the good, the bad, and the memorable of living near someplace others would rather not.  Have a story to share? Let us know--we'd love to hear!

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