An Empire of Ice Cream: Long Beach Is the Frozen Confectionery Capitol of America

We all scream...
| Photo courtesy MS Gallery

Long ago, Long Beach was the retirement destination of Midwest farmers and small town tradesmen. It was called the "Seacoast of Iowa." Through the 1950s, Long Beach rivaled Niagara Falls for honeymooning. Inevitably, Long Beach was called the "City of the Newly Wed and the Nearly Dead." (Although plenty of other towns in California were called that.)

Those snarky sobriquets no longer stick to a city with one of the most diverse populations in the country, but a new title may linger, if only a little while. Long Beach, according to the review aggregator Bundle, is tops in the nation for ice cream spending.

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In honor of July's National Ice Cream Month, Bundle "examined all households which had a credit card transaction at ice cream and frozen yogurt vendors ... then examined the total number of transactions and spending per city and ranked (these) on a per capita basis."

By those measures, people in Long Beach dig into frozen confections at a rate well over twice the national average and they spend 1,061 percent above other consumers for their treats.

(We'll pause for a moment to consider the many "you've got to be kidding" aspects of statistics on the web. The per capita spending on ice cream and frozen yogurt in Long Beach is more than a thousand times greater than anywhere else in the nation?)

If true, it would seem that Long Beach is the capitol of the Empire of Ice Cream.

The former Long Beach of the newly wed and nearly dead had a Coney-Island-style fun zone called The Pike. And The Pike had hotdog vendors and ice cream stands shoulder to shoulder (with tattoo parlors) along its Walk of a Thousand Lights midway. Today's Long Beach, while still a tourist town in many ways, doesn't appear to be unusually supplied with ultra-premium ice cream shops, just the usual density of Baskin-Robbins and Yogurtland chain stores.

Over-the-top sales of over-priced frozen treats might actually be elsewhere, based on acoustic evidence: the annoyingly merry jingles from ice cream truck loudspeakers.

For one Long Beach City Councilman the incessant playing of Turkey in the Straw by wandering ice cream vendors is (so to speak) the last straw. 6th District Councilman Dee Andrews recently demanded strict limits on the "nuisance" caused by the apparently numberless trucks. He asked the Long Beach city attorney to prepare an ordinance to "prohibit ice cream trucks from broadcasting any amplified music while parked and dispensing ice cream."

According to Andrews, "In areas of the mid-city, the Ice Cream Truck nuisance is the increasing and continuous play of amplified music. It can be heard throughout the day and into the evening hours for several blocks. Residents' peace and quiet is disrupted by a constant procession of trucks playing various songs at high volume levels. In several cases, an additional ice cream truck will follow the first one and the cycle repeats all through the day."

The city council agrees with Andrews and unanimously voted earlier in July to place restrictions on playing tunes while trucks sold ice cream, despite vendors' worry that silent trucks won't attract youthful customers.

Having made Long Beach safe from "It's A Small World (After All)" played over and over and over, the council members then wandered into issues of class and capitalism. Were the trucks -- driven by immigrant entrepreneurs -- decent looking enough for Long Beach, they asked? Were their frozen treats of dubious colors properly inspected? Should the city further regulate these small businesses to reduce the frequency of ice cream trucks on city streets?

Darker suspicions may have been lurking in those questions. No one suspected the Good Humour man when I was a boy, and the Helms truck hooted daily on my block without complaint, perhaps because both the Good Humour and Helms drivers were corporately uniformed Anglos.

In many places, not just Long Beach, the roving ice cream truck -- like the vanished pushcart of Manhattan's Hester Street -- is an ambiguous mixture of immigrant pluck and ethnic threat.

Given the city council's animus, Long Beach's leadership in ice cream may end as quickly as a single scoop of vanilla in a waffle cone. Wallace Stevens had it right when he wrote, "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." Cheap and gaudy things are good enough for some of us, until they inevitably pass away.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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