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Noise after 9:00pm

The trouble of noise complaints.

Is something happening to Sydneysiders? We usually like to think of ourselves as a pretty relaxed bunch. But these days, the mere nudging of a speaker’s ‘on’ button after sunset seems to be enough to have neighbours frothing at the mouth and the police on their way to knock down your door. 

I have heard many a story about the hysteria that attempts at a decent Saturday night have been met with. 

“My Surry Hills neighbour climbed on our fence to reach up and pull the fuse box at 9pm on a Saturday night, to shut down our party, and then staunched my housemate,” one person told me. 

Another, who lives in Redfern, did everything right when they wanted to host a party for the first time in a year.They warned neighbours beforehand and kept noise as low as possible. Cue cops shutting the night down early, a noise abatement notice, and a potential $30,000 fine for future infringement. 

“The cops came around the back alley and yelled at my housemates to leave, only to be sheepish when they found out they lived there. Apparently they got over 10 anonymous complaints about the party, which I find impossible to believe.”

Another inner-Sydney party-thrower was sent a sharply-worded letter warning of harsh consequences, were they ever to make any noise past 6pm (!) on a Saturday again. 

What’s going on? What is it about noise after dark that makes Sydneysiders so aggressive? 

Sydney seems to have come up with an answer to this already. Practically a stock character at this point is the humourless soul who snaps up the inner city terrace and proceeds to drop noise complaint after noise complaint on the sixty year old pub next door (bonus points if said pub is the Sydney Opera House). With many of Sydney’s loudest, trendiest suburbs now among its more expensive, the stereotype goes that the white-collar, Dinosaur Designs-clad types who can afford the pretty terraces have no patience for the revelry of the share house next door—not when they’ve spent the day chipping away at the mortgage.

Aside from ‘gentrification’, another term that’s quick to roll off people’s tongues these days is ‘nanny state’—apparently, New South Wales’ new name under the Liberal state government. Our state leaders’ own tyrannical attacks on fun after dark don’t need belabouring, but could all of these the knee-jerk reactions to noise have been validated—and bolstered—by their actions?

Or is all this noise about noise a symptom of something deeper?

Are Sydneysiders so quick to scale fences because of the fences themselves?

For decades, the “Australian dream” has endured: ownership of a detached three-bedroom house on a quarter acre block, girt by grass. Our big backyards, and the fences that score them up, have long formed a steadfast boundary that the hiss of a barbie—let alone party-noise—would need a good wind to pass over. In contrast, many of the world’s party capitals—Berlin, Paris, New York—have high population densities, and aren’t exactly known for suburban sprawl. Maybe Australians, with all our distance, just don’t particularly like hearing our neighbours?

Maybe not. For a nation of fence-lovers, we seem pretty interested in what our neighbours are up to. Since the 80s and 90s, shows like Today Tonight and A Current Affair have been national celebrations of gleeful, self-righteous voyeurism. Over dinner, Australians have tutted over a “nightmare” tenant here, a water restriction–flouter there. People who deserve punishment. Something has got our curtains twitching, our sweaty fingers reaching for the phone. Maybe it’s more than just the want of a quiet night? A feeling of accomplishment… of righteousness…

***

As all of this was mere conjecture; I decided to visit the other side of the fence, and ask some prolific noise-complainers what really motivated them. 

Emma*, an employment services industry professional from Marrickville, values her peace and quiet after a long, stressful day. When she hears the first rumblings of a weeknight party threatening to ruin her recharge time, her first port of call is the police. 

“The ultimate thing is when you’re pissed off, you’ve had a shitty week at work, the police arrive and you can see and hear everything, the music shuts off, and you’re like ‘fuck yes: goal accomplished’. And you feel this sense of achievement. Very righteous, yeah.”

I also spoke to Baz*, a Newtown resident who interrupts parties when they impact his family’s sleep and study time. Unlike Emma, Baz is confrontational first—not afraid to scale the fence and yell.  

“I’d wait until someone was coming out for a cigarette,” he said, “and then I’d target them directly, and turn on the swear words: ‘turn the fucking noise off now!’. That usually shuts it down immediately.”

The aggression, Baz told me, is only when strictly necessary—he dislikes playing bad cop, and will generally wait a generous half hour after council noise restrictions kick in before taking action. 

I asked Baz if he had ever considered tampering with the fuse box.

“No! Wow—I’m gonna do that!”

With our city changing, the days you can tamper with a fuse box might be drawing to a close. Clusters of apartments now fill our skylines, chipping into the quarter-acre blocks of our dreams. Like the unwanted burble of a party down the street, these new population centres are high-density, young, and noisy by nature. The sound of Sydney may only be getting louder. 

*Names have been changed.

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