New York

A Happy Himalayan Kingdom Is Driving Its New York City Neighbors Nuts

For many New Yorkers, the return of the United Nations General Assembly to the east side of Manhattan is greeted as a sort of annual plague: Traffic is a nightmare. Protests of varying intensity spring up. Foreign diplomats, who spend the year parking haphazardly and declining to pay the resulting tickets, are suddenly everywhere.

But for residents of the Manor, a co-op building across the street from the U.N., one diplomatic nuisance has proved more lasting: a vexingly loud air-conditioning unit on the roof of the building next door, which happens to belong to the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Last week, residents of the Manor sent a strongly worded letter to the Bhutanese ambassador, complaining about the noise from the nation’s permanent mission to the U.N.

“This relentless auditory nuisance makes it impossible to leave our windows open,” wrote Fabrice Frere, 56, a longtime resident, in an email to Doma Tshering, the ambassador, “and has disturbed the peace and comfort of our homes, consequently affecting our overall quality of life.”

The letter writers noted the irony of having their eardrums rattled by the official representatives of a country that prides itself on maintaining an elevated quality of life. Resting serenely on the slopes of the Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan famously employs a “gross national happiness” (G.N.H.) metric, alongside gross domestic product (G.D.P.), to measure the country’s vitality.

With breathtaking mountain vistas and sparkling rivers, the country has historically prioritized nature and human connection over encroaching technologies. Televisions, for instance, were banned there until 1999.

Now residents of the Manor claim their own T.V. sets are being drowned out by the clatter of the Bhutanese A.C. unit.

“Bhutan is one of the nicest places in the world,” said Azorena Aponte, 67, who has lived in the Manor since 2016. “It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful. Let’s make that happen here.”

The noise, which emanates from a rooftop cooling tower, started a few years ago, residents said, and is most noticeable in the warmer months, when their windows are open.

Mr. Frere compared the sound to having “hundreds of cicadas” right outside his apartment. Others described it as “a shriek,” “a screech” and “a buzz.”

“It’s annoying as hell,” said Sheila Matefy, 75, who meditates in her apartment, practices yoga in a nearby park and cherishes the general quiet of their Tudor City block.

Their quest for relief, thus far, has gone nowhere. A spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection noted that city inspectors, responding to a 311 call, had taken sound readings from the Manor in June. They determined Bhutan’s mission was not violating the noise code.

Mr. Frere, who made that 311 call, could explain: “As luck would have it, the unit was off that day,” he said.

Enforcing any penalties could prove tricky, anyway, given the rules of diplomatic immunity. Convincing diplomats to pay parking tickets, for instance, has been a decades-long headache for the city.

Stephen Carbone, who runs a heating and air conditioning trade school in Brooklyn, said disputes involving air-conditioners were common in the city, partly because owners often fail to notice the racket themselves.

“If you have a barking dog in your house, it may not bother you,” he said, “but it’ll bother everyone around you.”

The Manor apartment building, left, and the Bhutanese mission.Credit…Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

This month, the Manor sent someone to speak to the superintendent of the Bhutanese mission about the noise. Shortly thereafter, residents were informed that the problem had been fixed. The rattling noise in the days that followed suggested otherwise.

A New York Times reporter who called the mission on Thursday received a similar response: “We have fixed the problem,” said a man who identified himself as one of the building’s administrators, while declining to provide his name. “I don’t think there is any sound going on now.”

The residents, who noticed the noise as recently as Wednesday, will believe it when they don’t hear it.

“I’d love to go picket these people,” Ms. Aponte said.

Somehow, this isn’t the first time a cacophonous cooling unit has dragged the Manor into a protracted diplomatic dispute. In 2001, the permanent mission of Brunei to the U.N. — just around the corner from Bhutan’s — installed a 10-fan system whose incessant buzzing drove residents nuts.

The city issued three fines to the government of Brunei, $250 each, for violating the noise code. But the country — whose sultan has a net worth of around $30 billion — never paid the fines.

“It is sovereign territory,” an agency spokesman told The Daily News at the time, explaining the awkwardness of enforcing regulations in the neighborhood. (The tiff also made the cover of Newsday, with the headline, “Cold Comfort.”)

The dispute was resolved when the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs secured the cooperation of the Bruneian ambassador, who had the aggravating machinery replaced.

Claire Wilson, who moved into the building in 2000 and spearheaded the campaign against the Bruneian air-conditioner, expressed hope this week that the Bhutanese diplomats would also come to their senses, recognize the suffering of their neighbors and repair their earsplitting A.C.

“I’m optimistic,” she said. “They’re Buddhists, after all.”

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