Closed road in West Belfast, 2015 – Photo: Nicola Di Croce


3. Sonic boundaries: Mapping segregation through ice cream van melodies


Ice cream vans organize their routes within specific residential areas. In particular, working-class neighborhoods are the only areas to directly experience the particular sound signals produced by ice cream vans. Since mobile ice cream vendors cover almost all the areas around inner-city Belfast, my sonic investigation reveals a specific connection between the diffusion of the ice cream van melodies and the segregated neighborhoods.    

Ice cream vans areas of activity (brown) extracted by the fieldwork.


Despite the long cold seasons, ice cream vans represent a surprisingly widespread mobile trade which enjoys considerable success in these areas. From a sonic perspective, the melodies broadcasted by ice cream vans seem to be one of the few sonic signals able to break down the segregation framework. Indeed, their melodies are easily recognizable on one side or the other of a peace wall as well as within one courtyard or the other, even though residential courts are often impermeable to each other (Augoyard and Torgue 2006).



Ice cream van melodies compose a peculiar and disorienting sonic intervention, with their capability to penetrate borders, due to their mobility and the permeating quality of the music (Gopinath and Stanyek 2014). Such “deterritorializing” melodies mark afternoons and evenings in Belfast residential areas with a wide range of sweet themes taken from a classical to popular music catalogue, from “O sole mio” to vintage jingles. The melodies contribute to create a displacing ambience by establishing a contrasting atmosphere that is even more surreal due to the absence of other significant everyday practices (Cox, Franck, Hinant, Miller, Murphy, Paci Dalò, Quinz, and Szepanski 2006). The sound is played near the residential courts to grab the attention of the inhabitants. It is the only sonic cue coming from the “outside” that is perceived as innocent and familiar. In fact, kids immediately come out of their house to meet the van, later followed by their parents. As the van moves through the neighborhoods, the melody shapes the sonic environment of a specific time period of the day.

Soundfile 3: Ice cream van melody.


The route of the truck leaves a sonic ripple that influences the ambience of the area; it conjures for only a few minutes a sense of place that scarcely returns during the rest of the day. In most of the cases the sonic ripple persists; indeed, it can be heard continually as the van maneuvers in and out of the nearby residential courts. Since the neighborhoods are not easily accessible, the route covered by the trucks is far from linear; that is to say that the persistence of sound within the environment is strictly linked to the urban contours. 


As a result, the melody also appeared in the background in unexploited, abandoned, or uninhabited areas; in those cases the sound contributes to creating a surreal or even alienating ambience. Ice cream van melodies, more than any other sounds diffused through public space, play a crucial role in constructing the various nuances of the perceived sonic environment.


The area inhabitants, who are habituated to this sound, correspond in this analysis to ice cream buyers (the ones who can afford a 99p soft cream) who experience a segregated environment daily. My fieldwork thus shows how the circulation of ice cream vans traces a sonic delineation of urban marginality, introducing a strong relationship between the diffusion of these melodies and low-income housing areas. Indeed, my research reveals that mobile ice cream vans have chosen for their business those neighborhoods that are closer to the “peace walls”, and more generally to low-income residential areas.


Approximately 20 trucks drive through lower middle-class and working-class residential areas from 3pm to 7pm. According to one resident, “The truck is passing by here every day, around 4pm and again after dinner. I actually can’t remember a single day it doesn’t pass by.” It seems that the inhabitants have established a special relationship with ice cream van melodies: As one dweller said, “It’s like I’m waiting for it every afternoon, and suddenly, when it comes, I can hear the kids coming out their homes …”


The habit of listening for and to the ice cream melody coincides here with a strong sense of cultural belonging; a resident, in fact, proudly declared, “We have our ice cream truck, the others’ have their own.” Ice cream vans form part of the identity of the inhabitants and reflect the isolation of these residential areas. In this case, even though dwellers can hear other ice cream vans passing by, they recognize and firmly support their own. However, as sound does not honor borders, ice cream melodies can disclose a special sonic awareness linked to the perception of urban limits: “Sometimes you can hear them before you see them; some other times you can just hear them, but there is no chance to catch one, because they are on the other side of the wall.”


The interviews revealed how it is more likely for inhabitants of working-class residential areas to be fully aware of ice cream van melodies, especially close to the peace walls and other infrastructures built in order to separate two conflicting neighborhoods. In fact, outside the most segregated areas, there is a strong difference between the dwellers who are typically aware of the ice cream van melody and the ones who never notice such sounds. Inhabitants living in middle- and upper-class residential areas rarely perceive the ice cream melody, even if their neighborhood is quite close to a working- or lower middle-class ones. Sometimes they even question whether the trucks are still active in the city. One resident asked, “Are ice cream vans still passing through the streets? I can see them just in the main parks.” Their relationship with ice cream vans is then mainly nostalgic; the melody sometimes brings them memories from their childhood: “I remember I used to hear ice cream vans back in my childhood, when I was living somewhere else in another neighborhood, now I never hear them.” In this case, the disappearance of ice cream melodies within his present sonic environment reflects a social mobility that is difficult to be hidden.

Peace wall in West Belfast, 2015 – Photo: Nicola Di Croce.


Based on the field analyses and the interviews, it is possible to conclude that ice cream van routes rarely touch middle- and upper-class residential areas. The sonic identity created by ice cream melodies within working-class residential areas reveals a strong connection between borders, isolated residential courts, and difficult-to-access neighborhoods. Once or twice a day the ice cream vans establish a symbolic “bridge” between the city and the marginal and segregated areas. This is relevant especially for those who rarely leave their neighborhoods (i.e. stay-at-home parents and children as well as elderly people).


By pinpointing the presence of ice cream vans within certain residential areas it is possible to compare different urban fragments through the lens of marginality. It is also possible to assume that the quantity of ice cream vans in a neighborhood corresponds to its level of segregation. In fact, ice cream vans are “allowed” to come inside the courts; they are not seen as strangers. Therefore, the inhabitants seem to consider ice cream trade as one of the few “social services” coming toward them.