James Fallows, national correspondent for the Atlantic magazine, incisively analyzed President Obama’s Dec. 6 address on the Islamic State, guiding readers through its contents and what the speech conveys about the president’s leadership style.
A few days later, he employed the same authoritative voice to write about a topic usually raised only during municipal spats: noisy leaf blowers.
“It’s a change I knew about, but couldn’t quite believe, until I saw it in person yesterday,” Fallows wrote in a Dec. 11 blog post on the Atlantic’s website that introduced readers to a high-end leaf blower he discovered. “This is the emergence of battery-powered leaf blowers . . . which take us much closer toward the Holy Grail of equipment that is both (1) powerful and (2) quiet.”
Fallows, who served as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and later as editor at U.S. News & World Report, is part of a crusade in his upper Northwest Washington neighborhood of Wesley Heights to ban loud leaf blowers with two-stroke engines in the city. The writer has elevated the fight with a high-profile platform, chronicling his thoughts on leaf blowers and involvement in local politics in a series of posts he calls “Leafblower Menace.”
The titles include “History’s Greatest Monster” and “What the devil does in his spare time.”
Fallows and his wife, journalist Deborah Fallows, joined with neighbors to lobby city leaders for a ban, scoring a victory when D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced legislation this month that would prohibit the sale and use of gas-powered leaf blowers in the city by 2022.
“I’ve been getting complaints about leaf blowers for years,” Cheh said.
The couple have traveled the country in recent years to write about residents participating in their communities for a series in the Atlantic on civic engagement.
Fallows and his wife have owned a home in the District for decades, but they had not been similarly involved.
In November, Fallows attended his first Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting — a D.C. government body known for going into laborious and nuanced discussions about issues such as zoning, liquor licenses and, yes, leaf-blower noise.
Fallows, who wrote speeches for Carter during the Camp David Accords and once wrote that the president personally signed off on his requests to use the White House tennis court, characterized the range of issues covered at the ANC meeting as “impressive.”
“After writing about this for a while, I decided to see what it was like to be engaged in our own community,” Fallows said. “I personally never liked the sound of leaf blowers . . . but I decided to get involved because of the public health issue.”
Municipal leaf-blower battles are nothing new, long irking residents across the country during leafy fall months. Fallows’s neighbors have been fighting these raucous air-spewing machines for decades.
Haskell Small, a composer and concert pianist who is helping to lead the leaf-blower battle in Wesley Heights, was quoted in a 1997 Washington Post article, describing the sound as “piercing.”
“When I try to compose or write a letter, there is no way for me to listen to my inner voice, and the leaf blower blanks out all the harmonic combinations,” Small said at the time.
Small had pushed for an ordinance to cap the noise level of leaf blowers in the neighborhood. D.C. law now says that leaf blowers cannot exceed 70 decibels as measured from 50 feet away. (A normal conversation typically is about 60 decibels.)
Equipped with decibel readers, Small and Fallows said they often measure sounds exceeding 80 decibels and complain that sound ordinances are not enforced. Even Cheh conceded that there is not much the city can do to enforce it.
The fight is gaining momentum, in part, because residents are framing it as a public-health issue.
The two-stroke engine mixes fuel with oil, which does not undergo complete combustion. These engines emit a number of toxins, such as carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide, which leaf-blower operators inevitably inhale. Municipalities throughout the country, including nearby Takoma Park, Md., have moved to ban them.
“You find two-stroke engines in poorer countries because they’re cheap,” Fallows wrote in a blog post, citing a 2004 National Institutes of Health study showing that two- and three-wheeled vehicles in India with the engines account for a significant amount of air pollution. “You don’t find them in richer countries because they’re so dirty and polluting.”
Because this type of leaf blower is inexpensive and efficient in removing leaves, not everyone is in favor of banning it.
Conrad DeWitte was the lone ANC representative to vote against a proposal recommending that the D.C. Council enact a ban.
Opponents argue that it is not feasible to expect lawn companies and residents to dispose of leaf blowers in favor of more expensive, eco-friendly options.
Gasoline engines “are also very useful in helping homeowners (and/or their contractors) perform routine yard maintenance conveniently, quickly, and cheaply,” DeWitte wrote in an email. “I think the utility of these modern conveniences outweighs any annoyance from noise produced during the occasional use of these machines.”
Fallows, Haskell and other neighbors say the solution could be in an electric-powered leaf blower that is powerful and, of course, quiet. They hired a lawn company that uses a cordless electric leaf blower that costs about $350 and uses a $900 rechargeable battery.
Zack Kline, owner of A.I.R. Lawn Care, said that he hosted a leaf-blower demonstration for a few neighborhood residents at Haskell’s home.
“There’s a lot of industry pushback,” Kline said. “Local government intervention is good.”
For now, Fallows probably must commute to the Atlantic’s headquarters at the Watergate if he wants to write in quiet during the fall months. Cheh’s legislation has been referred to committee. If it does pass, it would not be fully phased in until 2022.
“I do a lot less writing at the house,” Fallows said. “People are attuned to different things, and the particular timbre of the leaf blowers just affects me.”