The Ice Cream War

It's a hot, sweaty, cutthroat business. And in most city neighborhoods, it's illegal. A report from the front lines of the battle of the Bomb Pop.

For a long time no one complained. In fact, says Major Joachimstaler, his department was unaware of the law as it applied to ice cream vendors, until this year. "The alderpersons from the various wards down here are the ones that brought it to our attention," he says.

When she got word police officers had served her drivers with warnings after receiving complaints from city aldermen, Frosty Treats' Mary Perkins was flummoxed. "We've always run the ice cream trucks," she reasons. "I said, 'Was it something that we did wrong? Tell me, so maybe I can fix it.' I've been here eighteen years, the ice cream company itself has been here at least 50, and all of a sudden we can't run our ice cream trucks?"

The conflict centers on a chunk of the near south side. Specifically: Alderwoman Jennifer Florida's 15th Ward, which comprises much of the South Grand neighborhood; Alderman Craig Schmid's 20th Ward, consisting of Gravois Park, Benton Park West, Dutchtown and Marine Villa; and Ken Ortmann's 9th Ward, which includes Soulard, Benton Park and Tower Grove East.

According to Florida, police reports indicate some ice cream vendors have been selling more than sweets. "They turned out to be drug-dealing screens," Florida says. "It seems un-American, and it's kind of sad that somebody would use an ice cream truck -- children -- as a way to promote their business. But you have to realize that the way they distribute drugs, and the way they conduct their business, is through children."

Major Joachimstaler offers has a different version of events. "That didn't come from the police department," Joachimstaler asserts. "That information came from some neighbors and neighborhood groups, through the aldermen. We've had some calls -- and we have to be careful here -- of suspicious activity possibly involving ice cream trucks and drug dealing, but we have not made any arrests in that regard. Over the years there have been some sporadic instances of that occurring, but there is nothing recent, except for information coming from the neighborhoods."

One source is undoubtedly 56-year-old Harvey Harris, who drove a Circus Delight ice cream truck back when he lived in Kansas City. Harris now lives in Craig Schmid's 20th Ward, and he's sick of the ice cream trucks. His neighborhood is struggling to cope with drug dealers, and Harris says he has witnessed suspicious activities involving ice cream vendors. "Last year I had a truck outside of my house at a quarter to three in the morning with a compressor running and the music going, and rap music on top of that," he says. "The people who were buying from him were the drug dealers down on the corner. Some of the people were giving the guy wads of money and coming away with a bag of potato chips." Now, Harris says, he calls the police. "If we ever get society turned around where people have concern for the kids and concern for the neighborhoods and have concern for the world" -- at this he pauses and erupts in a belly laugh -- "we might be able to reconsider this. But right now I'm pretty adamant about this."

Mary Perkins says she investigates all of her drivers when anyone is suspected of selling anything other than ice cream, even going as far as to deploy dummy drug buyers. She maintains that if any ice cream vendors are dealing drugs, the independents are to blame.

Frosty Treats owner Carl Long would seem to concur. "The problem has arisen because, over the years, a number of independent ice cream trucks have begun to operate in the city," says Long, who has been in the business for 35 years. "These independent vendors have no fixed business location, are not as safety-conscious as Frosty Treats and are often abusive with their noise and hours of operation.

"Aldermen begin to field complaints from constituents and try to remedy the problem," Long goes on. "Unfortunately they have lumped all ice cream trucks together, not distinguishing between responsible ice cream truck vendors, like Frosty Treats, and irresponsible vendors."

Of course, though Long may point the finger at independent drivers, his company continues to sell goods to them.

Long says he wants to work with the city to create a better ordinance, one that mandates safety equipment, restricts hours of operation and limits noise. "I feel confident that the aldermen, once their concerns are addressed, have no desire to shut down a longtime St. Louis business, with the resultant significant loss of jobs, depriving the citizens of the city an opportunity to have fun frequenting a Frosty Treats ice cream truck and enjoying a Bomb Pop on a hot summer evening," he sums up.

"What is it that we're losing?" counters Alderman Craig Schmid. "We're losing the opportunity for kids to run after a truck and get an ice cream when they can go someplace else and get it, versus the safety and irritation and the nuisance and the litter and all the rest. On balance, what have we really lost, other than this sort of picturesque view of what it is? I mean, I remember as a kid there was a guy who was always at Marquette Park, and that's still permitted under the current ordinances. So we still have the opportunity for some of that to occur without the danger that can exist with the way it was before with kids chasing after ice cream trucks."

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