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Sounds and the City

by Jill Walker

December 3,2004

Almost any city sound is bearable to a point. Unless it happens to be a turbocharged sporadic one, like the gas-powered leaf blower that’s blasting away down the street right now, busy making both street and sidewalk cleaner than your kitchen table. It’s not a steady stream of noise, but a random more painful delivery consisting of an occasional teasing silence that simply serves to foreshadow the inevitable and deafening clarion of this leaf pistol, as it rounds up yet another group of itinerant leaves.

Alas, relief from this aural torture comes from above, as the increasing drone of a helicopter takes command. Thank God (and on this rare occasion I do) for my proximity to Carolina’s Medical Center. While the “fwt – fwt – fwt” of their emergency helicopter taking off in the middle of the night usually sears through my dreams, this time I welcome the constancy of its chopper drowning out that skitzo leaf blower.

Charlotte has its own unique sound system. As our city continues to grow and change, how we sound will change as well. Fortunately, we have a long way to go before Charlotte crosses over to an “all city all the time” format. Currently we enjoy a healthy mix of acoustics, as well as an occasional breath of quiet. It is not all that unusual to be outside in the middle of the day and sense a lull in the commotion and noise, a chance to hear those few crisp leaves, jubilant escape artists all, scraping across the street.

As sounds go, the leaf blower is at rock bottom on my list. But there are so many other sounds in Charlotte that resonate for me. An audio tour of the Queen City would most certainly include its freight train whistles. They gently blow through the night, warning cars and passersby to clear the tracks while reminding all of us left awake that we are not alone. I imagine the conductor sitting in the locomotive, taking a quick bow as he rolls his cargo through the city.

Church bells are another beautiful sound that we all probably take for granted. Is it just me, or does Charlotte have an abundance of bells tolling throughout the day? While getting out of my car last week, I heard the bells of a local church ringing out the sorrowful “On Eagle’s Wings”, a song that would bring anyone to tears, especially when played at a funeral. Standing beside my car, I was moved by the impact of this church’s gesture. Aside from all the other contributions to community that churches make, their bells offer us all a time to pause and reflect.

Then there’s the corner of Trade and Tryon on Saturday nights, where you can watch and listen to the music of a group called Dream Interpretation’s Prophetic Ministry. It’s an eclectic mix of youth and beyond playing spiritual/meditative/rhythmic music for anyone who cares to listen. They’re really pretty good, and, as entertainment goes, a far cry from this intersection’s infamous past.

Bulldozers, while music to a developer’s ear, are a disturbing sound to many. A few days before Thanksgiving, an entire block of houses in Dilworth were decimated, along with every single tree on the site. Some of the oaks were over 100 years old. All of it gone. Homes to doctors, teachers, grandparents; their front steps, kitchens, little gardens all gone. Not a trace remains. And the birds, they’re on their own. Not a pretty sight, not a pretty sound.

I hope we can always hear Charlotte’s beautiful music and look forward to spring, when the birds strain their little vocal chords to wake us all up for their predawn concert. It’s one of my favorite pieces.

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