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Chinatown businesses want teens to buzz off

When I lived in D.C. nearly a decade ago, Chinatown was not the hub of activity it is today. I’m sure there were bars and restaurants starting to emerge in the area after MCI (now Verizon) Center opened in December 1997, but I don’t remember ever exiting the metro at Gallery Place/Chinatown except to down a pint at Fadó before the annual Syracuse v. Georgetown basketball game at the sports arena. Go Orange!

Video from the Metro station in Chinatown

Sadly, the streets of Chinatown are no longer lined with the quaint family-owned dim sum restaurants and noodle shops of yore. What used to be a culturally vibrant neighborhood has become hyper-commercialized and overrun with chain restaurants and garish billboards. But this isn’t about my admittedly pro-small business bias — it’s about conflicts caused by this burgeoning micro-economy recently coming to a head.

A few weeks ago, business owners in the Seventh Street corridor met with city officials to discuss what could be done about hordes of teenagers who have made Chinatown their regular weekend hangout, frightening local business patrons by contributing to crime and generally creating a nuisance. Concerns intensified in August after a Friday night confrontation began in the Gallery Place metro station and turned into a 70-person mêlée that spilled out onto the L’Enfant Plaza platform, sending four people to the hospital.

The solution to escalating tensions in the area seemed simple — install a device called a Mosquito that emits a grating, high-pitched noise, irritating the teens to such an extent that they’ll stop loitering in the area.* The $1000 device should be set to approximately 17.5 kilohertz, a tone that theoretically can only be heard by the under-25 crowd (and the odd super hero — Daredevil and Superman both spring to mind).

Test yourself
Below are samples of several frequencies of beeping. Test your own hearing, and compare the samples to the sample we took at the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro stop.
TDR’s sample
8 kHz
10 kHz
12 kHz
14 kHz
15 kHz
16 kHz
17 kHz
18 kHz

We at TDR tested this hypothesis Wednesday. Jon Sham, our multimedia reporter, pulled up a website with clips of varying pitches, and the staff gathered around for an impromptu audiology test. Most of the twenty-somethings in the office agreed that they could hear the tone at 17 kHz. Apparently my ancient 31-year-old ears could only make out the lower 16-kilohertz frequency. Despite much straining — why is it people squint when struggling to hear something? — not one of the TDR employees, all older than 24, could hear 18 kHz.

So Jon and I set out on the MARC train to D.C. to document public reaction to the latest teen-repellant. I expected to point out the phantom noise to oblivious adults passing by and chat with surly teenagers about the overwhelmingly uncomfortable effects of the Mosquito. But the device fell far short of its intended mark.

Immediately upon exiting the Metro station, I heard a high-pitched chirping and traced it to a small white box mounted on the south wall at the top of the escalators. It couldn’t have been set at 17.5 kHz, a frequency I earlier determined was out of my hearing range. (Back at the office Thursday, in a highly unscientific study, Jon and I decided that the pitch of the Chinatown Mosquito was actually 8 kHz.)

I noticed a woman a few years older than I holding her ears as she walked past the device, saying, “Oh, that noise!” Meanwhile, a cluster of teenagers was gathered, joking and laughing less than 10 feet from the source of the headache-inducing sound.

It was 4:30 p.m., nearing rush hour, and most passersby were not interested in talking to a reporter. But of the dozen or so people who stopped to chat with me, every single one of them, regardless of age, could hear the Mosquito.

Olivia Trimis, a 19-year-old University of Maryland undergrad standing at the Metro exit, called the sound “obnoxious,” saying that if she weren’t waiting for her boyfriend to meet her there, she would leave. Trimis confessed that she comes to Chinatown infrequently, so the noise isn’t meant to target her, despite her youth.

Cody Hartsfield, on the other hand, is a 19-year-old who comes to Chinatown every day. Over the course of 20 minutes, I watched him walk back and forth, talking with a group of three young men, then chatting with a teenage girl before returning to his buddies. When I asked if he was going to change his habits because of the Mosquito, he said no. “It don’t bother me. I asked some of my friends about it, they said it don’t bother them. They can turn it up for all I care.”

Meanwhile, the older adults who spoke with me heard the chirping but thought the device was pointless. Tambe Tabok, a 32-year-old Washington Sports Club employee manning a table at the top of the escalators, said, “I think it has no significance at all.” He suggested the Mosquito would need to be louder or even more annoying to deter teenage loitering. David Madison, 48, agreed.

“They’ll become immune to [the noise] just like they become immune to everything else,” he said.

Sixty-year-old Carolyn Woodley-Horne had no difficulty making out the high-pitched beeping. Though she found the sound “annoying,” she didn’t think it would deter loitering. “I can’t see why it would because with all the [background] noise…they would just kind of not hear it,” she said.

In fact, at times during the interviews, I found that the Mosquito was drowned out by rumbling buses and honking cabs.

The bottom line is this: The Mosquito’s lower-than-expected pitch is grating to the adults that local businesses are trying to attract, and it has little to no impact on the teens it’s meant to deter. I can think of a number of better ways to spend a cool grand. Can you?

*The Washington Post reported that the Mosquito was purchased and installed by a private business owner in the neighborhood and that neither D.C. transportation officials nor police advised that the device be used.