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Originally published Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Seattle drowns its "soundmark" with white noise of traffic, construction

At the Pike Place Market, you don't need eyes or nose or any sensor but your ears to know exactly where you are.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Gordon Hempton's new book

"One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World," with John Grossmann, Free Press, $26

Listen to sounds of Seattle

Some sounds of Seattle -- including cars on the brick road at Pike Place Market, a Sonics game at KeyArena and the late busker Jim Hinde with police siren -- as recorded by acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton.

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At the Pike Place Market, you don't need eyes or nose or any sensor but your ears to know exactly where you are.

"Platt-a-platt-a-platt-a" go tires across a brick road so worn it sounds like leather.

"Keel-keel-keel" go the seagulls.

"Ssssleeesh" goes shaved ice shoveled over fish.

Try it sometime. Go there and stand stock still with your eyes closed. From the fish barkers to the buskers to the Korean flower ladies, you can't be anywhere else in the world.

The Market is what Gordon Hempton calls a Seattle "soundmark" — like a landmark, only for noises. Hempton, a Port Angeles "acoustic ecologist," was in town this week for his campaign to preserve parts of Olympic National Park as "quiet places" where little to no human-caused noise would be allowed.

He's been called "the world's finest listener," and this newspaper has profiled Hempton's crusade for quiet in the woods before. So I asked him about the din of the city.

What does Seattle sound like?

More and more like any city, he said. Our soundmarks are going extinct beneath the white noise of traffic and construction.

"If I had to pick one word to characterize the Seattle soundscape right now it would be: 'confused,' " he said.

Hempton lived here from 1978 to 1994, working for years as a downtown bike messenger. While dodging cars and buses he developed his "seuketat" — Eskimo for "ears of an animal."

He claims he can sound ID a cop's Kawasaki motorcycle from more than a block away. Whether your car's brakes are good or going bad? His ears know.

So he was distressed recently when he came to compile Seattle's "sonic EKG." Using a decibel meter and recording equipment, he found the base level of background noise very high — often 75 decibels downtown. That's more than 10 times what city laws suggest should be the maximum around commercial buildings.

He called the featureless babble "a kind of grime that cannot be seen." It blocks out the signature sounds — the ones that place you here instead of Any City, Anywhere.

Example: "You're on a ferry, coming into the city, but you're not yet so close that the Alaskan Way Viaduct can drown everything out. The seagulls are swirling. The ferry blows its horn — that low 'brrrrooooooooooooo' sound — and it rolls across the water then echoes back at you off the skyline. Now that is the sound of Seattle."

Others I like include the Fauntleroy ferry in the fog. The clinking of mainsail lines against masts at the Shilshole or Leschi marinas. The throb of a barge on the Duwamish, especially at night. The train whistles outside Safeco.

Hempton is after quiet, the test being whether you can hear footsteps. That's too quiet for me. I like the rumblings of the city. Last year I wrote about people campaigning to silence nighttime train whistles and angered them by siding with the trains.

But Hempton says we don't have to choose sides, people versus trains. He has made the world's largest collection of train recordings, and he says today's train whistles aren't too loud so much as shrill and electronic.

"If we made the whistles more expressive, more soulful, less annoying — like they used to be — a lot of the complaints would die down."

He frets that Freeway Park, built over I-5 downtown, is a harbinger for bland noise swamping the city. To try to muffle the freeway roar, park designers built four cascading water fountains. The result is 85 decibels of white noise on top of more white noise. While there you can't shake an unsettling feeling that you should whirl around to see if someone's coming at you from behind.

"Wild animals would never choose such a place to linger," he says. "Why would we?"

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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