The city that wants to sleep

Mister Softee vice-president James Conway Jr., whose father and uncle founded the company in Philadelphia in 1956, said the ban on its trademark jingle would be a serious blow to its business…
The company has 650 trucks in 15 states (none in Canada), including 250 owned by franchisees in New York's five boroughs.

The Globe and Mail
June 9, 2004

The city that wants to sleep
In New York, SHAWN McCARTHY finds a noise-pollution push that aims to quiet Mister Softee
Shawn McCarthy

As the mercury soared to 30 degrees, Mister Softee's incessant blare called like a Siren's song to sweltering Brooklynites looking for a temporary, tasty respite from the heat.

Children and parents from the neighbourhood, hospital workers from across the street and passing pedestrians approached the white-and-blue truck where Yaman Sadet was dispensing chocolate and vanilla soft ice cream in cardboard-tasting cones.

The Mister Softee truck was parked on a residential side street at the corner of the commercial 7th Avenue in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighbourhood — as it is day and night, all year round, playing its noisy anthem.

To some residents, its music-box jingle evokes visceral memories of hot summer nights and cool treats. To others, it is simply an irritant, part of the mind-numbing cacophony of sirens, car alarms, blaring horns, barking dogs and loud music that infect many residential areas of New York.

"It's annoying," Rebecca Sroge said of the music, as daughters Raine, 4, and Stella, 3, prepared to launch into their vanilla ice cream flecked with coloured sprinkles. "It's not like it's lovely music filling the airs of New York — its monotonous and the loudspeakers are always staticky."

Now Mayor Michael Bloomberg is promising relief from the pervasive noise pollution with a tough new bylaw that would, among other things, muffle the Mister Softee trucks.

The mayor said noise pollution is the No. 1 complaint of New Yorkers who call the city for help, ahead of concerns about landlords, potholes and blocked driveways.

Mister Softee alone is the third-largest single source of complaints.

While proud of New York's reputation as "the city that never sleeps," Mr. Bloomberg is eager to ensure that its residents aren't kept awake or otherwise disturbed by inconsiderate neighbours.

Just as Canadians are lampooned as excessively polite, New Yorkers are justly characterized as often rude and self-absorbed; far too many think nothing of blaring horns or keeping barking dogs outside at any hour of the night or day.

"Complaints about noise are not frivolous," Mr. Bloomberg told a news conference this week in unveiling the bylaw. "Noise disturbs our sleep, prevents people from enjoying their time off work and too often leads to altercations when the police are called in."

By January of 2006, Mister Softee trucks will have to replace their trademark melody, produced by an amplified music box, with bells rung by hand (potentially causing confusion among those who respond to the bells of that other purveyor of truck-borne ice cream, Good Humor).

Mister Softee vice-president James Conway Jr., whose father and uncle founded the company in Philadelphia in 1956, said the ban on its trademark jingle would be a serious blow to its business.

"I hope that a compromise is possible. There are a lot of people in our organization who make their living selling ice cream in New York City," he said in an interview from company's headquarters in Runnemede, N.J.

The company has 650 trucks in 15 states (none in Canada), including 250 owned by franchisees in New York's five boroughs. Mr. Conway said the company supports many city industries and is the largest customer for the city's last remaining dairy.

"If you want to put us out of business, there is going to be a larger ripple effect that is much more serious than any problems caused by our music," he said.

New York's proposed bylaw, the first update in 32 years, would also take aim at barking dogs, air conditioners, construction sites and other disturbers of the urban auditory environment.

It would place strict limits on nighttime activity in particular, making it an offence to allow a dog to bark for longer than five minutes between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. (During the day, the dog can bark for 10 minutes before a ticket is issued.)

The city would set strict auditory maximums for all activities: less than seven decibels above ambient noise levels at night, and less than 10 decibels during the daytime.

Most Canadians cities have updated noise bylaws in recent years, though few set actual decibel levels. Critics say Canadian municipalities are not nearly as aggressive in enforcing them as Mr. Bloomberg wants to be.

The City of Toronto, for example, passed a law in February, 2003, that prohibits anyone from making noise that "is likely to disturb the quiet, peace, rest, comfort, enjoyment or convenience of the inhabitants of the city." Toronto also set out zones, including the most restrictive "quiet zone," banning specific activities (such as squealing tires or playing loud music) at certain times.

Vancouver has a general prohibition similar to Toronto's but adds an important qualifier that an activity should not "unreasonably" disturbed the quiet. It also sets decibel limits, roughly the same as the proposals for New York.


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