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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM NEW YORK CITY

They Scream at Threat to Jingles

Plans to reduce noise target ice cream truck ditties. Drivers and customers protest, but city cites complaints.

June 13, 2004|Walter Hamilton | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Ask most New Yorkers what constitutes noise pollution and you'll get an earful about blaring car horns, a perennial Manhattan gripe, and people screaming into cellphones, a fast-growing irritant.

But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in a sweeping anti-noise initiative unveiled last week, is targeting an unlikely -- and some say, blameless -- noisemaker: the city's ubiquitous ice cream trucks.

Bloomberg's proposal would force the roving ice cream vendors to silence the singsong jingles that ring out from their trucks as they cruise city neighborhoods. Instead, they would have to rely on old-fashioned bells to announce their presence.

Bloomberg's effort to lower the general din throughout Manhattan's five boroughs also includes proposed curbs on barking dogs, ear-splitting jackhammers and moaning air conditioners.

But the assault on ice cream trucks has stirred the greatest debate. Ice cream sellers say a ban on jingles could imperil their business. Some residents are sympathetic, saying the prohibition would deprive the city of a sonorous pleasure that conjures nostalgic memories of childhood.

"It's a good noise," said Debbie Stein of Manhattan, who said she often bought her children ice cream from the vendors.

"We have worse problems in the world than someone playing music," said Michelle Gallo, a franchisee of Mister Softee, whose trucks are fixtures throughout the city, while dishing out soft serve in Midtown Manhattan.

"We're not trying to hurt anyone," Gallo said. "We're just trying to sell ice cream." The jingle appears to be central to Mister Softee's self-image: The song launches with each visit to the company's website.

Mister Softee drivers in Manhattan say they play the tune sparingly, in part because they park in high-traffic intersections where they're plainly visible. But the melodies are crucial to other trucks that circle the streets in search of customers.

"I never play the music," said Peter Floros, who drives a Mister Softee truck on the Upper East Side. "Most people ask me to play the music."

Upon request, Floros played the song at full volume. Few passers-by appeared to even notice, and no one seemed disturbed.

But many people are bothered by the trucks, said Jordan Barowitz, a Bloomberg spokesman.

"Noise is the No. 1 quality-of-life complaint in New York City," Barowitz said, adding that the city received about 250 complaints last month about bleating ice cream trucks.

"When a truck is parked in front of your house and it's running its jingle for hours on end, it gets pretty annoying," he said.

Current law limits the playing of the tunes to once every 10 minutes, but the ban is widely ignored and impossible to enforce, Barowitz said.

If passed by the City Council, the ban on jingles would start in 2006, forcing reliance on bells.

"They'll still be able to do the necessary notification so kids will know the ice cream truck is in the neighborhood," Barowitz said. "The kids have developed a Pavlovian response to the jingle. I'm sure they'll develop a similar response to the bells."

Still, to some New Yorkers, there are better ways to achieve peace and quiet.

"It's ridiculous," said Dorothy Terminelle, 75, as she ate a cup of vanilla soft serve dipped in chocolate. "The children hear [the jingle]; they want to get their ice cream. It's part of living. It's a treat."

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