Eavesdropping on Brooklyn
What does a Brooklyn neighborhood sound like?
In Flatbush, where Church Avenue and Coney Island Avenue intersect, one hears a quintessential urban sound mash: bus brakes squealing and a jackhammer boring into the street. Just a few blocks away, along placid Prospect Park South at Argyle Road and Albemarle Road, birds chirp and a baby babbles. Back into the maelstrom of Church Avenue a few blocks further, the unmistakable tinkle of a Mr. Softee truck is heard, and a fruit vendor sings a ditty about his mangoes. “Get your mangoes here, from your mango man,” he croons. “Here comes your mango man, get your mangoes.”
The sounds of this Brooklyn neighborhood have been recorded by local high school students as a new way of mapping the sidewalks and intersections here to include the people who use them. With support from the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment (BCUE), students from Erasmus Hall Campus High School for Business and Technology created a “sound map” of Church Avenue, a main artery of the Flatbush neighborhood. From Prospect Park South to Bedford-Stuyvesant, students recorded sounds along Church Avenue and then charted their sound samples on a street map. The result can be found online at http://www.bcue.org/soundmap/soundmap.htm.
“The students came up with a way to create a map of the community to express more information about the community,” says Josh Lapidus, the coordinator of urban design programs at BCUE, headquartered in the Prospect Park Tennis House.
To complete the sound map, students participating in the tech prep program at Erasmus High spent 10 weeks meeting regularly with Chris Dierks, an urban design instructor at BCUE. Dierks says that because instructors are assigned to teach courses at random, “I had no preconceived ideas about the project. I only knew it was a mapping class.”
Dierks began the class by assessing the interests of the approximately 60 students involved. “I wanted to see what the kids were interested in: what they see and why they see it,” he says. “I wanted the kids to be invested in the program.”
Once they settled on a sound map, Dierks provided them with the analytical tools to create the map, but left the particulars to the students. “The thing with the project in general is not to overlay your interests with the students’,” he says. “You want it to represent them. Where do the students come from? This gets them out to a larger group of people at school and to the community at large. Other people see it.”
Armed with a microphone, a recorder, and a digital camera, Dierks and the Erasmus students took field trips around Flatbush. The students decided they wanted their map to feature visual as well as audio representations of the neighborhood, so they recorded their pieces of the map and took photos of each site where they obtained a sound sample.
“It didn’t require a lot of equipment,” Dierks says, but with these simple recordings the students mapped their way through neighborhood life: past little boys laughing (as they rode a coin-operated camel outside of a wig shop on Church Avenue); through a block echoing with muted neighborhood sounds (absorbed by the quiet, shady cemetery at East 21st); and down into the clank and clamor of traffic (along the B35 bus route).
According to Lapidus, this is the first time he’s seen a sound map created by high school students. They “really gravitated toward” the use of sounds in their map, he says. “A lot of agencies do community mapping projects. It’s a tool that community-based organizations use to work with people to get them to know their neighborhoods and to study assets in their neighborhoods and communities,” he says.
For Erasmus High tech prep students, mapping was studied as a computer application, according to Lapidus. The tech prep program is part of a federally funded college preparatory program run out of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, part of the City University of New York (CUNY). The program trains students in technological applications for science and math.
Nickolai Sampson, an Erasmus student, expressed an interest in learning the technological side of map creation and worked with Dierks to build a website for the map, writing the text and developing a color scheme. The site features a street map of the Church Avenue route with colorful photographs of the 15 sites where students recorded their sound samples.
Dierks roundly praises the Erasmus students and their work. “This was a fun project, and they were great kids to work with,” he says. Their efforts—and their neighborhood—are now preserved on the website’s sound map. Click on a photo, and the street scenes rumble, sing, and chirp to life.
Lela Moore is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn.
Lela Moore is a writer based in Brooklyn.