I used to live above a Chinese gambling den. The apartment was on 8th Avenue in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. After a work situation went sour, I was looking for a cheap place; the second-floor spot seemed clean and quiet when I looked at it. Come moving day, my new abode suddenly reeked of stale smoke. Maybe the last tenant had a moving out party or something, I reasoned. But after airing the place out—and attempting to seal up and insulate any potential gaps in the closets and whatnot—the thick stench persisted.
A couple of days after moving in, a Con Edison worker came to read the gas meter. It was located in the basement—which was apparently also being rented out to a bunch of young Chinese guys. They’d furnished the place in a minimal fashion that consisted of a wall of Heineken cases, a few cheap card tables, and a bunch of patrons sitting around gambling while conjuring up clouds of smoke.
I didn’t stay in the apartment long, but it confirmed my suspicion that neighbors are usually hell. In that cheery case, it was my olfactory comfort that was being assaulted—but most times it’s your eardrums under attack from a nuisance neighbor. Here’s how you go about dealing with the infernal problem.
Approaching someone to complain about something they are doing is fraught with anxiety and worry—but it’s unfortunately something you’re going to have to do when, say, you want to politely point out that your neighbor’s surround sound system is causing your apartment to shake and vibrate at three in the morning.
Don’t be tempted to begin by sending a note. Personally, if someone dropped a hand-written missive under my door saying I was making too much noise grinding my coffee in the morning and could I stop or do it later, I’d be fine with it. But many people seem to view notes as passive aggressive acts—and just like sarcasm in texts and emails, your message might get mangled. So unless your neighbor never answers the door, try and avoid going the written route at first.
You can get smart about the confrontation, though. If your significant other or roommate has a better temperament about these things, get them to make the initial contact. Likewise, play the gender or age card if it’s appropriate. Once you’re ready to speak to your neighbor about your suffering, there are a few different approaches you can take. Let’s cover them in escalating degrees of severity.
The “Overly Polite” Approach
The first time I had to deal with a noisy neighbor—which was in an old pre-war building and involved the air steward boyfriend of the downstairs tenant who’d return home from work at curious hours and blast his TV—I remember reading advice that suggested taking a super friendly and amiable approach. Honey attracts more flies than vinegar as the old adage goes, right? The thinking went that when you confront your neighbor about the issue, you also give them a home-baked pie or some cookies or other such gift to show them that there are no hard feelings. Then you genially say something like, “Hey, you know that charming EDM music that sounds like velociraptors fornicating that you’ve been blasting all though the night? It’s actually kind of loud in our humble apartment and we’re finding it hard to sleep. Would you be able to tone the various degrees of sub-bass down a bit please?”
Unfortunately, this is not the way the world works. I live in New York City—if someone I barely know attempts to gift me some food they say they’ve made, I am naturally assuming it’s poisoned or they found it dumped outside on a street corner. Also, anyone accepting such a gift is just weird. Furthermore, you can fairly assume that any neighbor who’s doing something to piss you off is so far up their own ass might be beyond a courteous approach anyway. So let’s just note for the record that it’s worth being polite in your demeanor and move on.
The “Firm But Friendly” Approach
The most effective way to open a dialogue with a neighbor about something they’re doing to annoy you is to keep it respectful, but with a stern underbelly. You don’t want this to escalate into a shouting match, but you also don’t want to seem so timid that they’re just gonna close the door and go back to their serenity-shattering fuckery. Keep your complaint simple and to the point: Let them know what the issue is and propose a quick solution (usually them stopping what they’re doing—or at least the severity of it). Speak in a confident voice, and practice your short speech at home and out loud a few times if that helps. You want to appear assured and resolute, not nervy and scared.
Also, offer to let the neighbor come to your apartment to check out the issue themselves. Buildings can be weird, and oftentimes something that might not seem loud to you is amplified in a curious way.
End by mentioning that if you’re doing anything yourself to disrupt their enjoyment of their home, you’d be happy to switch things up and stop it. (On that note, be a considerate neighbor yourself by following the simple rules of refraining from mounting your TV to the wall (sound is vibration!), avoiding slamming doors (it’s not civilized!), and give your neighbors a heads-up if you’re having a soiree.
The Totally Fine “TattleTale” Approach
Now that you’ve confronted your pesky neighbor about their lifestyle infractions, you hope the issue will stop. Unfortunately, it may not. This is where you should consider taking some responsible tenant steps. Sure, they might not lead to an actual solution, but as The Wire has taught us all, chain of command is king.
First up, speak to your landlord or management company or housing association. They may already be aware of the problem—other residents might have also complained about the dude in sandals who appears to spend his days auditioning to DJ at some hellish Las Vegas club or the kid attempting to run his own tribute to Breaking Bad from his kitchen—but even if not, they should look into the issue. They’ll usually tell you they will speak to the infringing party; they probably won’t, but at least you’ve brought it to their attention in the manner that a responsible tenant should (and documented the process accordingly).
If the issue is extreme or coming from a commercial building (more on that later), you also might be able to call some sort of local authority. New York City has the 311 system, where hypothetically you can dial the digits and log a complaint about, say, the all-night party going up on a weekday. Although the system will do little more than furnish you with a reference number that, comically, you can check online the next day to be told that the issue was sorted out.
The “Assert Your Rights” Approach
Most residential leases should contain a clause that guarantees you something like “a quiet and peaceful enjoyment” of the premises. This phrase is your friend. It basically means that as long as you pay your rent on time, you shouldn’t have to put up with someone else in the building tampering with your tranquil existence. (Some leases will also set out more specific infractions, in a similar manner to many leases only allowing you to move in and out of the building on certain days of the week.)
Unfortunately, when it comes to a nuisance neighbor issue, it’s a tricky right to enforce. Realistically, your offending neighbor knows that you’re unlikely to try and take them to court for their habit of doing jumping jacks in high heels during the early hours of the morning—and you don’t want to seem like a lunatic jabbering on about your legal rights.
A better approach is to note your right to peacefully enjoy your home in writing to your landlord or management company. It should let your landlord know that—shock, horror!—you’ve actually read the lease, and maybe jolt them into action against the offending tenant. If it’s an issue that seems like it’s affecting more than one unit, you could also attempt to get other tenants on your side and approach your landlord in unison—although this risks your looking like some sort of busybody.
The “Fighting Back” Approach
Yep, in my experience, the most effective way to deal with a noise issue from a neighbor is to fight back, immature as that may sound. It’s based on the logic that, in a communal building, too many people naturally act like selfish assholes. You can assume that the person who plants huge speakers on their floor and blasts music around the clock isn’t thinking of the other people who live in the building in the first place. Communal living is something you need to tackle like a war. Sometimes this means giving rude neighbors a taste of their own medicine.
There was the time that I lived in a new high-rise building in Bushwick that came with a 10,000-square-foot shared roof terrace: Most days it was rarely used, but one day, as I trotted in around midnight, I saw the thing ablaze with flashing lights and beats that are probably described as “booming.” Yep, around 30 or so fuckwit hipsters—and I use the h-word in the trust-fund-jerkoff sense—were having a party, complete with one of their friends playing at being a DJ. (The lease’s rider specifically prohibited such shenanigans.)
“Maybe the sound won’t travel into the apartment,” I thought, attempting to stay rational. Of course it fucking did. My first reaction was to throw something out of the window at the melee—I always think beet juice would be awesome for this—but the building had these weird fancy windows that barely opened lest someone try to jump out of them. So I ventured down to the second floor where the door to the roof terrace was. A bunch of power cables had been run inside and were plugged into outlets outside the elevators. Pissed off—and presumably wanting to get some sleep before rising early to watch an English soccer match—I yanked the cables from the wall. The music stopped. I walked up the stairs to my apartment. I expected the racket to start up again. I had no follow-up plan or second move. Strangely, it never did. Party over.
Likewise, I’ve been advised to blare loud music (classical and metal specifically) through speakers directed at an offending neighbors’ apartment to show them exactly what it’s like to be bombarded when you’re trying to rest. And when a few months later a new neighbor moved into the building and insisted on practicing his shitty house music sets all day, I ditched the formalities and stormed up, banged on his door, and told him to stop. My rickety reasoning went that I’d lived there longer than him, so I was entitled to yell at him—a move that might also set a precedent for him to not act like an ass. I guess it was a bit like rubbing a kitten’s face in its poop if it drops nuggets outside the litter box. Or in human terms, just further proof that people will act like assholes if you let them.
Either way, fuck 358 Grove Street.
As a quick caveat to the above advice, if you move into a building that houses some sort of commercial enterprise, you’re living on shaky ground when it comes to noise and nuisance issues. Your lease likely acknowledges the fact that some sort of business is allowed to carry on and that it may result in certain noise or olfactory issues. (You probably got a rent break or deal with the business in question in return for this.) Some people can tolerate the situation, but remember: There’s a huge difference between being the person relaying witty banter outside of a bar at 2 a.m. and being the person trying to sleep while drunken imbeciles holler and whoop at 2 a.m.
To that end, unless you have a very specific issue that goes beyond the ambit of the lease, your landlord likely isn’t going to help, especially when the commercial tenant is paying a whopping rent rate. When I lived above a New York Sports Club in Boerum Hill, I wasn’t bothered by the patrons playing tennis above us (you could always tell when it was a particularly vigorous game). But during the second year of the lease, the cleaners began to leave the large TVs and speakers in the gym below on all night. At 3 a.m., the sound of an informercial blaring from a TV mounted to the same surface that makes up your bedroom floor is loud and annoying to the point where it will ruin your sleep.
I called the landlord and went as far as speaking to the manager of the gym myself. Nothing changed. Luckily, we were nearing the end of the lease and were able to suck up some sleepless nights for a couple of months (pro tip: Getting drunk is your friend when you want to sleep through noise). On the other hand: A bar in Flatbush that I used to call my local had issues with the tenants upstairs complaining about live music. I somewhat sympathized with their complaint, and while they may have even had a legal point, they were largely seen as foolish for moving in above a bar and not expecting noise issues. So be wary before agreeing to live over a business of any sort. I wouldn’t do it ever again.
Know When The Battle Is Over
Sometimes, you have to realize that you’re not going to win against a nuisance neighbor. If you’re renting, that’s when it’s time to just suck it up and leave. Sure, it takes some swallowing of pride: You’re rightly pissed off that while you pay your rent on time and behave in a courteous manner, you’re the one who is being somehow punished for your good conduct. But remember: It’s just an apartment, and no hot location or perceived steal of a deal is worth the marrow-gnawing stress that constant bass vibrations or serial yelling bat-crap crazy neighbors can have on your sanity, your relationships, and your work. So if you feel like you’ve exhausted your avenues of complaint—and gone through the usually fruitless rigamarole of trying earplugs, melatonin, adding furniture against offending building walls—then maybe it’s time to admit defeat for the good of your sanity.
When it came to the Chinese gambling den, I just upped and left. The ceaseless smoke wasn’t something I was ever going to beat—coupled with a landlord who claimed that the people downstairs were “just playing cards like in church.” I found out that other units in the three-story building were also vacant—presumably the kick-back from the illicit Go Fish sessions was enough to trump any legit rental incomes. Luckily, the landlord—an elderly woman named Sue whose precise links to the underworld I had no interest in discovering—had a habit of only cashing rent checks towards the end of the month in question. So I simply found a new place, cancelled the yet-to-be-deposited check I’d sent her, and left a phone message telling her to keep the security deposit and that I was moving out. I never heard from her again. Serenity now, as they say.
Phillip Mlynar lives in Queens, NYC. When not writing about rappers for Red Bull, NYLON, and the Village Voice, he muses on the feline form for Catster. His Twitter claims he’s the world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
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