Urban Smells

It has come to my attention that some very smart people have mapped the urban smellscape of London.  They wrote a nice paper about it in 2015 and that seems to be the end of it.

Sorry folks, not nearly enough info here.

Are you kidding me?  London?  And, even more off-topic, Barcelona?  That doesn’t sound like scholarly research, it’s a boondoggle.  “Ooo let’s stay in London and say we’re studying smells! “ “Yes, let’s!  And what about Barcelona?  I haven’t been there in years!” “Why not? *smrff*giggle*”

Even their tool of research, the “smell-wheel”, is not exactly fine-tuned.  For example, the choices under “rotten” are “putrid” and “musty”.  I’m sure we can do better than that here in New York City.  It’s a matter of civic pride!  What’s the first thing everyone says when they come here?  “Oh, it’s so dirty!”  It’s not that we are proud of being filthy – of course not.  It’s the variety that’s so impressive.  We don’t have as many trash-nados as we used to, and pooper-scooper laws have made the general street scene less of a minefield, but still.  Switzerland we’re not.

Nasty, yes. But think of the variety!

Back to the smell-wheel.  There’s work to be done, people!  Besides the choices of “putrid” and “musty”, I propose adding 50 or 60 other choices.   What about “thrift-store mothballs”, “1940s elevator”, “decomposing vermin”, “neighbors who haven’t been seen in weeks”, “subterranean homeless man recreating medieval hygiene standards”, “aging organic farm share”?  Animals:  horse and skunk!  Please!  Where are dogs (neutered and au naturel), cats, pigeons (healthy and sick), rats, Hudson River fish, visiting geese, exotic pet reptiles?  In the category for tobacco:  where’s regular, fruity, minty, vaping cafe, organic skunkweed, dangerous synthetic cannabinoid, Boulder’s Finest Legal Grass, crack?

More spice here than in the entire state of Montana.

No self-respecting authority on odor can do a true study of smellscapes unless they start with New York City. You’ll need a whole new smell wheel, so let’s get started.


Am I in a souk?  Everyone knows the scent of Chinatown, but have you tried  Little India?  Sections of Jackson Heights and Lexington Ave in Manhattan  present a smellscape that’s an intoxicating combination of ground spices and new silk:  sweet shops (think fried dough and cardamom) and lots of turmeric, with undertones of resin and incense.   You’ll never want to leave.

Did the local chemical plant explode?


Non-Standard Supplies  There are two types of cleaning smells in New York:  “normal” and “Caribbean”.  Caribbean cleaning supplies are heavy on the Mistolin, a noxious concoction of undiluted chemical additives labeled with pictures of flowers.  Maybe you have to grow up with it to like it, but my mother didn’t raise me that way.  To me,  the only allowable fumes that say “clean” are substances banned by the Geneva Convention for use in war (chlorine,  bleach, ammonia).  Plus pine and lemon.  I think we can all agree on pine and lemon.

Don’t forget the pleasant scent of my folding money!


Too much money  Scent is a strong supporting actor in the visual display of Too Much Money.  It’s a combination of Italian leather,  lingering post-op plastic surgery disinfectant, whatever gets spritzed on you at Saks that costs the most this week (but in tastefully small amounts – you don’t want to BATHE in it!) and at least 3 hair care products in complementary scents (including unscented, which, by the way, is a scent).

I’m working on a way to recreate my aftershave so you can experience it remotely!


Digital Aftershave   Having worked for years in information technology, I can recognize Digital Aftershave from a floor away in an elevator.   You whiz by – oh, there’s IT on the 4th floor – then it fades as you ascend.  I’m not sure what it is, but I’m fairly certain that a quick check of Duane Reade’s sales figures for male personal care products would help narrow it down.   It seems to come in two flavors:  fake musk plus fake cloves, and fake musk with melted Skittles.  For those of you who don’t work in IT, you may be familiar with it as “doorman cologne”.

Everyone’s favorite landmark.


Grand Central Station is a combination of brass polish, cooled and well-circulated indoor air, metallic sparks from train wheels on tracks, a whiff of fine grilled steaks, extra-strong coffee in the morning, and expensive plastic fumes from desirable electronics, courtesy of the Apple store upstairs….and newsprint.  Yes, newsprint.

A recent view of Penn Station.


Penn Station  Some of you outtatowners may think that all big train stations are the same.  Far from it.  You only need cross town to find a smellscape in Penn Station that is diametrically opposite to Grand Central.  At Penn Station, an old and unsolved pipe problem has created a lingering scent of sewage for many a year.  That, plus tendrils rising from unfettered public urination in the lower passageways, combine with the hot-oil-meets-sugar smells of Aunty Anne’s pretzels, sports-bar frozen calamari rings fried in well-aged fryer baskets, and some kind of 1960’s era vinyl fumes that are now illegal to use in public construction.

Here’s one type of concert in Central Park…


Central Park Outdoor Concert  Ah, the smell of Central Park!  Here, you find nature at its finest.  Lilacs in the spring, fresh cut grass in the summer, leaves and earth in the fall, new snow in the winter, and pine trees all year round in the pine-a-torioum – sorry, East Pinetum.  That’s about as much nature as most New Yorkers can handle.  It all comes together in a tsunami of odor during outdoor concerts.  You get the sting of dust or mud (depending on the weather), the allure of illicit beer and wine, an acrid tang of grilling

…and here’s another.

mystery meat, the persistent reek of coconut sunscreen, the smell of normally well-groomed metrosexuals minutes after a shower but starting to sweat despite attempts to mitigate, and on the periphery, the horror of the port-o-sans (side note:  my favorite brand name is Call-a-Head)

Go and try it.


Sturgeon Shops are a class of specialty food store known as “Delicatessen”, an obsolete word meaning “delicacies” from which we get the word “deli”.  But a sturgeon shop, and indeed any real delicatessen, is not a run-of-the-mill deli, and the smellscape will tell you as much.  You get the umami burst of fine smoked fish and well-aged cheese, tart notes of vinegar and sour cream, the underpinning of newly sliced onions, and the fresh-bread scent of just-delivered baked goods.  The larger emporiums have fruit tones from the dried cherries and pears, with freshly ground coffee as a base.  The most well-known is Zabars, but there are others smaller and arguably better.  Put your head in and sniff.


New York Steam should be in a category by itself.  In the winter, it provides needed heat and a whiff reminiscent of a health spa, if someone had used the sauna to steam brussel sprouts.  You get a mometary blast of odor and warmth as you fight the slush to get underground.  In the summer, it is not as welcome, but it does contribute to the general authenticity of August in New York City.

Old pneumatic tubes. Used to be state of the art.

I’m not sure what’s in there, besides water vapor.  There’s a metallic tang, combined with an earthy odor as though the steam had passed through miles of Manhattan bedrock, the sand of ancient shorelines, layers of good old-fashioned dirt, concrete from the 1800s, old pneumatic tubes from the 1920s, asphalt laid down in 1953, fiber optics from the 90s, then up into the air and sunlight of this very minute.

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