Godzilla Is My Upstairs Neighbor: New York During the Recession

05/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tonya Plank Novelist, blogger, ballroom dancer, public interest attorney

I've lived in a studio apartment on the second floor of a Manhattan brownstone for six years. The first four and a half were wonderful: I loved my neighborhood, my beautiful bay windows, my cute non-working fireplace and pillared sleeping loft, and my apartment's high ceilings perfect for exhibiting art and tall bookcases.

But about a year and a half ago, my happiness - along with my sanity - began to come under siege. My former upstairs neighbor got married and moved away and Godzilla moved in above me. In the 17 years I've lived in the New York City area I've never heard anything quite like her (I'm told she's a college student, though she never seems to go to school since she's always in the apartment). For starters, her footstep seems to be a combination of a run, a jump and a stomp. It honestly sounds like she's taking a baseball bat and beating the floor with each step, or like a Godzilla or Incredible Hulk movie when everyone can hear the monster approaching because of the heavy steps, which cause the ground to rock like an earthquake. The building seems not to have insulation between ceilings and hardwood floors and I can feel the vibrations if I put my palm to my ceiling. She often wears hard-soled, clunky-sounding shoes, which make it all the worse. She also enjoys moving furniture around at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes she'll crash home at 3:30 in the morning (on a weeknight) and she'll sound like a bulldozer pushing furniture aside this way and that as she makes her path to her bed. Also, she'll often drop or throw heavy things -- I'm not always sure what they are -- maybe a backpack full of books, maybe, judging by the frequent clanking sounds, pots and pans or something metal. Often there is pounding on the floorboards and walls - again, at all hours of the day and night. I imagine her as Godzilla wagging her tail about excitedly and knocking the room to bits, or like a mental patient trying to escape from a locked-in room. One time, I awoke at 2:30 in the morning (weeknight again) to mad pounding along the edges of my ceiling. I stared up in disbelief, trying to figure out what in the world she was doing. Soon I began to hear the faint whir of a vacuum. She was apparently ramming a vacuum nozzle into the corners and along the edges of her floor.

I've done everything I can think of to get her to quiet down: repeatedly talking to her -- or, because it's often hard to get her to answer her door, leaving polite letters (which have become less polite as time goes on); repeatedly talking to the landlord (we don't have a super); checking the lease for carpet requirements (we don't have any unfortunately); checking municipal codes for noise regulations (they say the landlord has a vague duty to maintain the apartment in a habitable condition, which includes maintaining general quiet overnight, but without specifying how); tapping on the ceiling with a broomstick; and even calling 311 in the middle of the night when noise prevents me from sleeping.

Nothing has solved the problem. The first few times after I spoke to the landlord or called 311, the situation would improve a little, but eventually, she'd always go back to her stomping and jumping and furniture-moving and throwing. Soon, reporting her to the landlord or to 311 did absolutely nothing. It's actually become worse over time: instead of scraping furniture on the floor, she'll just pick it up and drop it -- creating a frightening-sounding thud. Now there's an increasingly loud creak in my ceiling and whenever she stands on it or stomps over it, it honestly sounds like the ceiling may come crashing down. There's also a long dip in the ceiling directly over my bed. (I've reported these to the landlord; the man he sent over said he thought they were safe.) In response to my tapping on the ceiling, she angrily told me there's nothing more she can do -- she bought some rugs (though I don't believe they're very large; the clanking on the hardwood sounds exactly the same as always), and I'm just being sensitive and have to learn to live in New York.

During the daytime I'm able to drown out the sounds somewhat by wearing noise-canceling headphones with earplugs underneath and by playing my stereo. But earplugs alone don't cut it and I can't play music overnight or I'll bother neighbors. My downstairs neighbor even came up one afternoon and told me she could hear the bass from my stereo speakers all the time and asked if I could put them on a platform. The speakers are already mounted several feet off the floor, so I turned off the bass, which all but negates their ability to reduce the noise from above.

I've never, in the seven apartments I've lived in since moving to NY, heard this level of noise before, and I never heard the woman who used to live above me in this building. Yet when I complain to friends about it -- which I do far too often since it's basically taken over my life -- everyone immediately starts on about their own situation. "I'm about to go insane; the girl next door to me won't stop singing all the time," one friend said. "Loudly!" Another friend had a similar problem, with the stompers being a pack of "frat boys." She called the super in the middle of the night to come listen to the noise at one point. Another said her new apartment is, like mine, without insulation between ceiling and floor, and she can hear everything her upstairs neighbor is doing -- from where all he walks, to opening and shutting desk or dresser drawers, to pulling a chair out from under a table and plopping down on it. Another said she often wakes up in the middle of the night because of her neighbor's frequent bathroom use. A Facebook friend is so disturbed by a neighbor's continuously-running sewing machine she took him to court. Another can't stand the children jumping off the bed on top of him and often has to sleep in the living room. Another Facebook friend says her upstairs neighbor is driving her nearly homicidal from -- my favorite -- a clogging hobby! A Twitter follower of mine imagined his upstairs neighbor to be fighting an 18th Century war, riding a horse and charging the enemy back and forth, back and forth across the ceiling. A dancer friend recently blogged with the opposite complaint: that his downstairs neighbor called the super on him just because he was dancing. And I recently read that Madonna's neighbor was trying to get her kicked out of their condo for the same thing. Lately, when I've called 311, before you get an operator there's a long message that I didn't hear before telling people not to call more than once within a 24-hour period. It seems noise complaints are up.

I was so embarrassed when my downstairs neighbor asked me to turn my music down; I'd never been called noisy before. When I moaned to my mom about it, she suggested that maybe it's that we're all in our apartments so much more frequently now, there being so many out of work, or just staying in at night and on weekends to save money, that we're bound to drive each other nuts. My building used to be full of thirty-something professionals who'd work 12-hour days then go out to clubs and bars to let off steam, only returning to the apartment to sleep. Now it seems like most of those people have moved out; instead everyone is younger and at home around the clock. Walking down the hallway on an average evening you can hear a TV on in practically every apartment. On weekdays there is just as much if not more noise coming from within apartments as there is on weekends.

New York apartments were just not meant to be lived in. New Yorkers -- at least Manhattanites -- live in cafes and restaurants and bars and theaters and bookstores. These aptly-called "shoeboxes" were meant to house a bed to sleep on and not much more.

Anyway, friends tell me I should take Godzilla to court, but I don't know whether I'm more tired of not getting any sleep or of fighting. I just know that we all need to respect each others' need for peace and privacy and perhaps impose our own carpet requirements if city regulations or individual leases don't, or, if the Recession doesn't end soon, we may all kill each other.

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