No matter how many times you make that turn onto Court Street, you never see it coming. You’re waddling home with friends after stuffing yourselves with Mondo dinner, or maybe you’re dashing straight to a pregame after a last minute Metro run. The night is dark, cool, and quiet, and then it happens: An orchestra starts playing. The music gets louder as you make your way down the block. Its effect varies: In December, the music carries the air of festivity; around finals, it soothes you. Late at night, it takes on a surreal quality that makes the scene feel like something straight out of “Louie.” Still, you can’t identify the source of the music. You reach the corner of Court and Broad Street, and the night is quiet once again.
Quiet for you, that is. The classical music at 213 Court Street actually plays on an incessant loop and has since 1993. What you are hearing is the classical station of a background music distributor known as Muzak, now owned by the Mood Media Corporation. Tom Ford, Senior Vice President of MiddleOak Insurance, selected it himself. The music plays day and night out of the company’s adjacent parking garage, and it can be heard from as far away as the intersection of Church and Main Street.
Don’t ask Ford for the names of the composers or symphonies you are hearing. Despite having listened to it nonstop for more than 20 years, he knows almost nothing about the genre. He opted for classical music simply because of its soothing quality and sophistication.
Ford, who directs real estate for MiddleOak and manages the company’s facilities, initially arranged for the music to be played out of Plaza Middlesex, the building that now houses the likes of Thai Gardens and Tuscany Grill. The idea came to him in 1992, when he was assigned the task of marketing the building. He knew this would be a challenge in the wake of the murder of Jessica Short, a nine-year-old who was stabbed to death in the summer of 1989 at a Middletown sidewalk sale.
“Middletown had a terrible reputation,” Ford said.
Seeking inspiration for changing the public attitude toward Middletown’s downtown area, Ford visited several cities in the Northeast with well-regarded downtowns, including Burlington, Vt.; Portland, Maine; and Portsmouth, N.H., and took note of their best features. It was in Concord, N.H. that Ford discovered what would eventually become a trademark of Middletown.
“I was walking through the downtown, and there was music that was playing in the background,” Ford said. “It was just really classy, so I decided to put it in at Plaza Middlesex.”
After locals expressed appreciation for the music at Plaza Middlesex, Ford brought the music over to the MiddleOak garage.
Playing the same set of orchestral pieces incessantly—regardless of their elegance—is a potentially alienating decision. But according to Ford, those who work near the garage have responded very well, for the most part, to the constant trill of the speakers.
Nonetheless, Ford has received his fair share of complaints since he began playing the music. Ten years ago, a resident of Sbona Tower, an apartment complex for senior citizens down the block from MiddleOak, objected to the noise level. Ford has since decreased the volume.
Aside from giving downtown Middletown a soundtrack, the music has transformed the neighborhood in a way Ford didn’t foresee. Prior to the installation of background music, local teenagers, many of them homeless, congregated in the area surrounding the garage and, according to Ford, harassed employees whose cars were parked there. Once the music was installed, the large groups began to disband.
“We would have literally 300 kids there on a summer night, a lot of runaways and whatever, and the music kind of got them to disperse a little bit,” Ford said. “I didn’t do that intentionally, but it seemed to work…It was a real nightmare. And then when the music went in, they didn’t congregate as much.”
Ford views this consequence as a happy accident and in fact considers the music a small but significant step in the development of downtown Middletown. He hopes to help transform the area into a hub for arts and entertainment and has seen vast improvements since the early ’90s.
Out-of-towners, too, have expressed appreciation for what is perhaps the most noteworthy quirk of downtown Middletown.
“Whenever I bring somebody new to the downtown through, they always comment on how nice it is,” Ford said.
It’s good that they do because, once in a while, Ford needs to be reminded of the music’s very existence.
“It’s funny,” he said. “After all these years, you almost don’t even notice it.”