Search for mysterious noise in Brooklyn Heights turns into massive crowdsourced investigation

December 8, 2021 Mary Frost
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The noise started at the beginning of November.

It was described by residents of north Brooklyn Heights as a mechanical chirp or a high-pitched, repeating whirr. Some thought it was a car alarm; others, a motor noise. It had a strange way of seeming to move around the neighborhood depending on where you stood.

Whatever it was, as it continued nonstop for days, and then weeks, it slowly drove people crazy.

“The noise is there 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Heights resident Victoria Owens wrote in an email to the Brooklyn Eagle. “The streets are filled with it. I can hear it in every room of my home with all the windows closed, and it’s interfering with sleep at night and the ability to focus and be productive during the day.”

Owens joined the Brooklyn Heights discussion group on the NextDoor app and found other exasperated neighbors. It turned out the noise was the talk of the town.

“Has anyone else heard that weird, constant, annoying sound coming from somewhere near the scaffolding by Gristedes and Pineapple Walk?” Michael Sterchak wrote on Nov. 4. “It’s a high-pitched ‘zee-zee-zee-zee…’”

“I have heard it since Tuesday,” Wilson Burrous wrote. Lisa Luther thought it was a loud fan. To Nadine Corbin, it sounded like a car alarm. Helen Spirer was sure it was in the Pineapple Walk area.

The noise was also noted in the Brooklyn Heights Blog. Someone named “MikeMike” described it as a nonstop “fan/ringer sound,” while “Pineapple” said it sounded like an alarm which began “around the time the Gristedes scaffolding went up.”

Residents of the co-op at 75 Henry St., just north of Cadman Towers, peppered Cadman Towers’ Property Manager Mary Egrie with complaints. Egrie had building Super Julio Davila look into it. The co-op was not the source of the sound, she reported.

“I filed my first 311 complaint on Nov. 5 — and they closed it saying they couldn’t find the source,” Wilson Burrous told the Eagle. “I can honestly say it sounded like nothing I had ever heard before — especially since the sound changed depending on where you were.”

NextDoor members had heard about the “screeching” condo in Cobble Hill that was eventually traced to poorly designed balcony railings. Some speculated that maybe the noise was caused by the scaffolding above Gristedes.

Others thought the noise emanated from a fan belonging to Gristedes, hidden behind the scaffolding in this photo. (There is no fan.) The tower shown in the front is the Cadman Towers co-op. The building in the background is the co-op located at 75 Henry St. Photo by Mary Frost

Burrous called the scaffolding company. The company insisted the noise had nothing to do with their structure. On Nov. 6 she convinced the 84th Precinct to take a look at the scaffolding. “Police can’t get access until Monday but hopefully once they can they can turn whatever it is off,” she told NextDoor neighbors, who by this time had formed a task force.

The police did not get back to her on Monday, however. She called again and had “a lovely conversation with the dispatcher” who complained about the volume of noise in her own apartment, Burrous said.

Burrous even created a Tiktok account called “thebuzzbkheights” with videos of the noise. “It didn’t take off, unfortunately,” she said.

The Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) was the only organization that took the noise complaints seriously, Owens said. BHA searched several buildings and ruled out MTA construction as the source of the noise. They also contacted local officials and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). DEP inspectors, however, “didn’t find the noise to be loud enough to issue a violation nor could they locate the source,” Owens said.

“At this point … it felt like the sound would be a part of our lives forever,” Burrous said. “Ultimately, everyone was a suspect — the MTA, street light fixtures, the neon sign above Gristedes, the parking garage.”

On Nov. 10, Taray Gill, assistant property manager at Cadman Towers, sent out an optimistic email.

“We have narrowed it down to the NYU dormitory. We have high hopes the dormitory’s super will be able to detect the problem and have it fixed by today,” she wrote.

But the source of the noise was not the NYU dormitory, and the problem was not fixed that day.

By now the management at Cadman Tower was getting testy, as increasingly strident complaints flooded their inbox. Many neighbors insisted that the noise was coming from construction on a third floor deck. Management took some neighborhood building supers on tours of the third floor to prove that the noise was not originating there.

“At this point we have spoken to every building super adjoining Cadman and have been on most of their roofs. The only building pending investigation is the Plymouth Cafe,” Egrie wrote to the task force. “Another possibility is the new MTA construction trailer parked on Henry; we have attempted to talk to the people there but got no cooperation.”

NextDoor members reported that Cadman Towers’ email box had become full and further emails were being rejected.

Some thought the mysterious and disturbing noise that plagued Brooklyn Heights for weeks came from an area near the Cadman Towers co-op at Pineapple Walk and Cadman Plaza West. Photo by Mary Frost

Toba Potosky enters the story

On Nov. 11, a member of the NextDoor group texted Toba Potosky, who had been the Board President of Cadman Towers for 16 years. (Potosky stepped down last March to run for the City Council.) This unnamed person told him she thought the mysterious sound might be coming from the cooling fans near Gristedes. Potosky walked to the area and listened, but quickly realized that the suggestion was a non-starter.

“There are no cooling fans about Gristedes,” he texted back. “It seems like it’s coming from the roof of Clark Street Station or the MTA trailer parked on Henry Street outside the dorm residences.”

“Toba, I shared your number with a few people in the neighborhood,” the person replied. 

“Oy!” Potosky thought. “Oy” would become a theme for him in the coming days.

Potosky called Super Davila and Egrie, not knowing they had been engaged in the noise issue for more than a week already. 

“They were struggling. Especially Julio, since the noise permeated his apartment as well this entire time,” Potosky said. “Confidently, I told them all I would find it … Oy!” 

Somethought the mysterious noise was emanating from the roof of the student dormitories at the Hotel Saint George. Photo by Mary Frost

Potosky, an audio engineer who works on an early morning television program, normally wakes up for work at 3 a.m. 

“However, the following day I woke up earlier and, armed with my iPhone, set to record sound and video,” he said. “I was convinced that I would be able to locate the offending chirp at that time of the morning. I started from where I left off, above Gristedes once again. The sound seemed louder because the neighborhood was quieter.

“From above the supermarket, it still sounded like it was coming from across the street. I walked downstairs and over to student housing and the MTA trailer, but the sound seemed to move. In fact, no matter where I went, the sound seemed to come from the opposite direction. Plymouth Deli? Nope. Peas and Pickle? Nope. Gristedes? Nope. MTA trailer? Nope.” 

Davila and Egrie told Potosky “of an unpleasant meeting” with a local resident about.  the noise. “It got heated and the police were almost called. Oy!” he said.

Egrie felt she was taking the brunt of the neighborhood’s anger. There were “angry nasty people calling, emailing, barging into my office, cursing,” she said.

Cadman Towers spent “a tremendous amount of the time searching ours and all of the neighboring buildings,” Egrie said. “We set up and attended numerous meetings set up with MTA, community board liaisons, etc.” 

On Nov. 17, Davila sent a drone flying above the co-op building. The next day, he went around with a GoPro trying to view every corner of the scaffolding. Both high tech attempts failed to locate the noise.

Another suspect was the scaffolding surrounding the entire Cadman Towers complex. Photo by Mary Frost

The breakthrough

The breakthrough the neighborhood had been hoping for happened on Nov. 18. 

Potosky got a text from his wife Ronni. “Almost home. Stopping to see if ‘X’ [name withheld] is back from trip.” 

“Tenant X” was a Cadman Towers resident who had left for an extended vacation a couple of weeks earlier. X was a long-time friend of the Potosky’s, and Ronni had a sneaking suspicion that somehow X had something to do with the noise.

Potosky relates what happened next:

“Moments later, there is a knock on my door and fumbling of keys. It was Ronni. ‘We have X’s keys, don’t we?’” she asked.

“I knocked [on Tenant X’s door], but no answer. I ask Ronni if she thinks something is wrong. She says she’s not sure.”

“Standing in the hallway of our lifelong friend, we hear the faint chirping thru the door. ‘What is that noise?’” Ronni asked. 

“X wasn’t answering the door. I call X’s cell number from the hallway. No response. Okay, I think. This could be one of those moments. Let’s go in.”

“I opened the door. The chirping sound is loud. Very loud. Very, very loud … It was piercingly loud. I walk to the terrace and pull the plug on the Bird-X Super 100.”

“My phone rings. It’s X returning my call.”

“Do you realize you’ve been torturing Brooklyn Heights with your Bird-X pigeon repellent Super 100 sound machine?” I asked.

“X’s first response: ‘Bullshit.’ My response: “Not bullshit. Seriously. Torture. How long has this been on?” 

“I set it before I left. Two weeks,” X said.

Some people blamed the noise on MTA’s construction at the Clark Street subway station, located within the Hotel Saint George. Photo by Mary Frost

Sonic and Ultrasonic waves 

Ronni Potosky took a photo of the unit. It shows a Bird-X Transonic Pro small animal repeller system, available for $35.49 at Target.

The device, installed on a high balcony, was emitting both audible noise and noise so high pitched that only those with sensitive hearing could pick it up. According to Target’s product description, the Transonic Pro “combines both sonic and ultrasonic sound waves” to disrupt pests, and is effective for up to 3,500 square feet. 

Researchers studying ultrasound say it presents a growing problem in urban spaces. Young people, some adult women and others with acute hearing can become irritated and even sickened by the noise.  

Potosky called building management with the news that they had finally solved the mystery.

“Mary and Julio met us at X’s apartment,” he said. “I turned the machine on and off so they could hear it. …  Julio saw that the box was set for rat repellent. We don’t have rats.”

“Julio called me to say Toba found the noise and he was getting in the elevator right then,” Owens told the Eagle. “I called Wilson, and she filmed it from her fire escape. I was watching down on the street and just about cried.”

“The next day Ronni received flowers and other assorted gifts and gift cards,” Potosky said. “Not surprised. She’s been my hero for 30 years.”

In retrospect, BHA’s Birnback said, “It was driving me a little crazy that we couldn’t find the source of the noise, although definitely not as crazy as the people who were living with it 24/7. 

“By the time the source was discovered the BHA had enlisted the help of three city agencies, one incoming City Council member, and numerous building supers and nearby residents,” she said. “My huge appreciation to everyone who lent a hand and of course to Ronni Potosky who ended the saga for everyone.”

The contretemps “brought together so many people from the neighborhood,” Owens said. “I’ve met the super from pretty much every building nearby and some people got really invested and wanted to help, which was awesome.”

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