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SF Gate

Anti-noise advocate sues San Francisco church over bells


San Francisco's Ss Peter and Paul Church (right) was recently sued in small claims court by Alan Coe, a neighbor who says the church's recorded carillon is too loud.The church's Rev. John Malloy (left) listens as Coe testifies. Coe has endured noise from the church's 'bells' for a decade; Malloy views the bells as part of the area's "poetry."

Ringing of the bellicose—
Neighbor taking church to court over noise of ‘bells’

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Joe Garofoli, Gerald D. Adams, Chronicle Staff Writers
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle , November 21, 2003, page A-19

The bells of SS Peter and Paul Church in San Francisco's North Beach ring a bit too loudly and a bit too often for Alan Coe, who lives a half-block away.

They're so annoying, he says, that the church should stop the chiming during funeral services. Sunday morning clanging should be scaled back, too, Coe said, because the racket is ruining his girlfriend's slumber on the rare day she can sleep in.

For years, Coe has asked the Roman Catholic church to cut the noise. He's sent enough letters and made enough phone calls to fill an inch-thick file kept by the neighborhood's chamber of commerce. Church officials say they've turned down the volume and cut back on ringing hours, but they haven't made the chiming soft enough or infrequent enough for Coe— who is planning to take the church to small claims court Monday.

No matter that Coe moved to within earshot about 70 years after the 79-year-old Washington Square church opened; the first two years he lived there, he remembers that the ringing wasn't as loud because of some malfunction with the church's electronic bell broadcast system.

And it's not just church bells that rattle Coe. It's also cable cars, foghorns and "beeping" buses. All are part of the urban cacophony that the parking lot attendant wants to muffle.

"I'm not asking for the bells to end," said Coe, a Columbus Avenue resident who dubbed his noise reduction campaign North Beach Residents for a Quieter Neighborhood. "I'm just asking that once an hour on Sunday and at noon and 6 on weekdays would suffice.''

The church's bells -- which aren't actual bells but a recorded carillon broadcast through speakers -- ring hourly from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, said the Rev. John Malloy, the church's 81-year-old pastor. A wedding or funeral will inspire a ringfest, too.

But Coe, 38, says the bells ring more often Sunday mornings, when he compares the chiming to "a loudspeaker blast as loud as your alarm clock every 15 minutes," starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 1 p.m. And on his organization's Web site, www.quieterneighborhoods.com, he bemoaned having to "hear 10 minutes of droning megaphone chimes every time there's a funeral."

His proposal: "No funeral chimes."

When he appears in court Monday, Coe said, he'll be asking for a total of $1,100 -- $800 for a professional acoustics study and $300 for his own suffering.

News of Coe's crusade has ears ringing in North Beach's trattorias and cafes, as many are upset at the audacity of someone complaining about one of the neighborhood's most beloved institutions, the place where Joe DiMaggio was married and buried.

"I think it's crazy," said Tonina Machi, owner of the Victoria Pastry Shop. "Those church bells have been ringing before my time, and I'm 51 years old. Let him move to Colma [San Francisco's cemetery district] where it's nice and quiet."

"I don't think he should be living in a city," said Jane Porfiri, as she walked her dog across the street from the church. "They're wonderful city noises. It's not like people fighting."

Last week, after hearing Malloy explain that the church was being taken to court, the North Beach Chamber of Commerce cranked up a petition drive that has already gathered several hundred signatures. Among the signers was Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who lived a block from the church for a dozen years and will testify Monday on behalf of the church.

"My phones ring off the hook when it's Fleet Week," said Peskin, who represents the neighborhood. "But church bells? C'mon.

[Fleet Week features dangerously low-flying fighter Navy jets rocketing above San Francisco's residential neighborhoods every October. One of the Blue Angels, as the jets are called, crashed during a similar demonstration in Germany a few years ago. Many San Francsico residents feel as Coe does that jet noise has no place in a dense urban environment.]

"I think this guy needs to go live in the suburbs instead of one of the most vibrant neighborhoods outside of New York," Peskin further opined.

Bells are just one of the noises that inflame Coe. "Beeping buses" ruin apartment dwellers' peace, he writes on his Web site.

Foghorns: "Sometimes they are so loud that they disturb the sleep of residents who are miles inland."

Cable cars: "Could the mechanical works under the street propel and guide the cable in such a way that it would be quieter?"

National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi Church on Columbus Avenue: "They shouldn't dictate to the neighborhood when to commemorate 9/11 by ringing their bells for a solid hour at 6 a.m. in the morning, as they did on the two- year anniversary," Coe wrote in an ad he placed in the November issue of the North Beach Beat neighborhood newspaper.

In deference to Coe, Malloy said, SS Peter and Paul didn't do any extra ringing on Sept. 11 this year.

The church's bells are generated by a 3-foot-high machine. Six hash marks encircle its volume knob, and a hand-scribbled pen mark halfway on the dial shows where the level should be.

Malloy can remember the volume level straying from that mark only once in the 2 1/2 years he's been at the church. "Somebody upped it one day for a funeral," he said. "They turned the wrong button.

"The bells are part of the poetry of North Beach, the cacophony of North Beach," Malloy said. "This place is as vibrant at 2 a.m. as it is during the day.... Well, that's because the bars let out then."

Blagovest Bells’ comment on the case:

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We were gratified to follow this story in the San Francisco Chronicle, but note that it does not discuss two issues that can play a big role in a neighbor's irritation:

Ss Peter & Paul uses an electric carillon system. In other words, the church is automatically broadcasting canned music throughout the day. Its “bell” ringing is not personal and does not mark a human event— indeed, the system would keep broadcasting even if every human being on earth were to perish, at least until the lights went out.

Also, the church is broadcasting its recordings every hour— and every 15 minutes on Sunday. Again, two issues are present here:

In the first place, we feel that hourly broadcasts are excessive in a pluralistic society, particularly when the "bells" are actually just an automatic appliance. But— every 15 minutes on a Sunday??! "If Sunday is maybe your only day off, would you really want to hear a loudspeaker blast that is as loud as your alarm clock every 15 minutes starting at 9 AM?" Coe asks, not unreasonably. He does not strike us as a crackpot out to destroy Christian Civilization. He even says, "I'm not asking for the bells to end. I'm just saying that once an hour on Sunday and at noon and 6 on weekdays would suffice.'' We actually support him in this.

We feel that hourly ringing is excessive especially if the broadcast is not a simple striking of hours but of some musical selection. Not everybody has the same taste in music, and the music usually played in such recordings usually expresses a dated sentimentality that's actually annoying to many people.

Secondly, even if the broadcasts are simple reminders of the time of day, this nonetheless is not human time, but only objective, mathematical time which goes nowhere and ends only in death. It does not involve the hearer in any kind of 'sacred space', which is the real purpose of a church bell. But we have not heard the "bells" of this church ourselves, so we don't know what kinds of sounds they are making.

Tower clocks were once an important part of civic life. Today, they serve only to create "atmosphere". But should a church (or anyone else, for that matter) be in the business of creating an ersatz "atmosphere"?

We wish all churches could reflect on the significance of Section 2.1.5 of the Russian Orthodox Church's Bell Ringers' Typikon: “Electronic imitation of any kind, amplification, non-traditional ways of producing sound, substitution of automatic systems for bell-ringers, or the use of recordings are not allowed for Orthodox bell ringing, as they do not correspond with the liturgical tradition of the Church.” This doesn't strike us as a matter of “Orthodoxy vs. the Rest”, but of good taste, common sense, and above all of what Liturgy fundamentally is.

We feel that the Chronicle's coverage of this story was quite biased on the side of those who wanted to keep the bell recordings. In failing even to mention the specifics of Coe's complaint, though, which strikes us as quite reasonable, the Chronicle actually did a disservice to everyone who loves bells and has a concern about the nature of the urban environment.

We also feel that trouble is almost inevitable when bells are replaced by broadcasts of automatic appliances.

Interesting footnote: We contacted Mr. Coe personally and discovered that we are in complete agreement. It turns out he's a musician, and one of his big issues with Ss Peter & Paul's loudspeakers is precisely that they are inauthentic, and no one will really admit this (note the picture from his website below). It was a long and very interesting conversation. He told us that he is even eager to visit our parish in San Anselmo and hear our real bells!

By the way, noted historian and author Ivan Ilyich also agree: see this article by him (pdf format); also see this article by Michael S. Rose, which appeared in Adoremus, the bulletin of the Society for the Renewal of Sacred Liturgy.

By all means your questions or comments on this case. We'd like to know what you think!

From the plaintiff's website:

Sts. Peter and Paul megaphone

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If you live on Telegraph Hill, it's not so loud. The reason is that the megaphone blast on that side hits the other spire of the church and this deflects the sound. If you're on other sides however, then you have a blast of loudspeaker waking you up all the time, and letting you know what time it is every 15 minutes on a Sunday. Plus you have to hear 10 minutes of droning megaphone chimes everytime there's a funeral. If Sunday is maybe your only day off, would you really want to hear a loudspeaker blast that is as loud as your alarm clock every 15 minutes starting at 9 AM? If you're someone that likes to think, likes to read, likes to create art, likes to get into one's unconscious via some tranquility in the home, then this a major disruption. We are not in favor of no chimes at all, but we think that the following would be reasonable:

  • Once an hour on Sundays starting at 9 and going until 6 PM
  • Noon and 6PM chimes only for Monday-through Saturday.
  • No funeral chimes.


SF Gate

Letters to the Editor:

'Urban cacophony'

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Editor -- So church bells are keeping Alan Coe's poor little girlfriend awake in the morning? So what? Does that give him the right to try to change decades of beloved tradition in North Beach ("Ringing of the bellicose,'' Nov. 21)? After reading about his frivolous lawsuit, I checked out his "North Beach Residents for a Quieter Neighborhood'' Web site. This guy needs serious help. How can anyone say that the sounds of foghorns, cable cars and the bells of SS Peter and Paul Church are "noise pollution''? These beautiful sounds are what make San Francisco and North Beach so unique, and most residents cherish them. I suppose Coe will target the sea lions and wild parrots next. I would recommend that he and his girlfriend move out of San Francisco to live in the country; but before long, they'd probably start complaining about the "noise'' made by crickets, frogs and babbling brooks.

C.S., San Francisco

Editor -- Alan Coe has lived a half-block from SS Peter and Paul Church for nine years; the church and its bells have been in their same location for 79 years. Coe also has issues with cable car noise, foghorns and beeping buses, at least two of which have been around much longer than the 38-year-old Coe. As Supervisor Aaron Peskin said, North Beach is one of the "most vibrant neighborhoods outside of New York.'' The "urban cacophony'' in North Beach is part of its charm. This man needs to get out of town.

R.W., San Francisco

SF Gate

Church’s sounds beat out silence as
Judge dismisses excessive noise claim

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Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
©San Francisco Chronicle, November 25, 2003, page A-15

A San Francisco judge dismissed a claim Monday by a North Beach resident who said the early-morning bell-ringing from a nearby Catholic Church during a Sept. 11 ceremony disturbed his sleep.

Ruling in small claims court, Judge William O'Connor said Alan Coe lacked standing in state court to file a claim that SS Peter and Paul violated San Francisco's noise ordinance. Even if he had standing, O'Connor said, Coe didn't meet the burden of proof for winning his small claims case.

Nevertheless, the judge praised Coe's effort and encouraged him to contact an attorney and pursue the case in civil court.

But Coe said he was done with the case. He's out $800 for a professional acoustical study, plus $250 he paid to an acoustics expert to appear in court Monday.

"I think state law is stacked against anyone who wants to complain about noise," Coe said outside court.

The 38-year-old doesn't have immediate plans to move from the Columbus Avenue apartment where he's lived for a decade, but is considering it.

Coe had recently started a noise reduction campaign called North Beach Residents for a Quieter Neighborhood, dedicated to quieting neighborhood noise ranging from Fleet Week jets to cable cars. His claim here involved an early-morning bell-ringing session at the church as part of a 9/11 commemoration a year ago.

Calling the ceremony "a pro-war jingoistic rally," Coe said the bells began ringing regularly at 5:48 a.m., giving him less than four hours of sleep that night. He operates a parking lot and often works late hours. He said the early-morning "Orwellian wake-up call" prevented him from commemorating Sept. 11 in a quiet, more personal way.

Asked why he waited so long to file a claim, Coe said it was the noise from this year's Fleet Week celebration that had pushed him over the edge to file a claim in connection with the 2002 incident.

Coe has complained for years about the church's bells, which aren't actual bells but a recorded carillon broadcast through speakers, hourly from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, said the Rev. John Malloy, the church's 81-year-old pastor.

A wedding or funeral will inspire a ringing, too. On his organization's Web site, Coe said he would like to hear "no funeral chimes."

Representing the 79-year-old church, Malloy called the claim a "nuisance suit." After the judge announced his decision, Malloy shook hands with the handful of parishioners who appeared in court to lend moral support, as well as with Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents North Beach.

Malloy presented 2,000 signatures on a petition signed by neighborhood merchants, residents and patrons asking that the bells keep playing.

Noting that the church bells have been ringing since 1924, Malloy said Coe "should have known that" when he moved to the neighborhood.


SF Gate

San Francisco anti-noise advocate closes operation

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Joe Garofoli
© San Francisco Chronicle, November 26, 2003, page A-20

The anti-noise community group begun by the North Beach resident angered by the bells of SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church is "ending operations," according to a note posted on its Web site Tuesday.

Alan Coe began North Beach Residents for a Quieter Neighborhood to rally support against everything from Fleet Week jets to foghorns. He also asked that the church curtail its early-morning ringing on Sundays and during funeral services.

The Columbus Avenue resident also filed a small courts claim against the church, saying its bell-ringing during an early-morning remembrance ceremony Sept. 11, 2002, disturbed his sleep and his plans to commemorate the day quietly.

A judge dismissed Coe's claim Monday, saying he lacked standing in state court to file a claim. On Tuesday, his organization folded, according to its Web site.

"There simply wasn't enough support in the community,'' reads a note posted on Coe's www.quieterneighborhoods.com. "There was some support, but not enough to continue. I'm moving on to new things."


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