Wednesday, February 26, 2014

City Scents

54th St and 3rd Ave. - 2014

Could we tell a city by its smell?

Finding a neutral word that refers to olfaction is a hard task. I tried with "smell", but this often indicates something rather unpleasant to the nostril: "What's this smell?". Then "odor", but I cannot help thinking of the next blonde-hair blue-eyed tall guy who's just out of the basketball court and raises his arm to hold on to the subway handrails: what comes from that armpit is total B.O. "Perfume" won't work either. "Fragrance" is a beautiful word, but it indicates a pleasant smell: still far from neutrality.
So what should we call a city's influence to our second chemical sense?

I thought of scent.
Neutrality isn't achieved, but there's consonance with city, and if I can use scent to indicate a characteristic and distinct odor, that's the word I need.

So can we tell a city by its scent?
The more we travel, the more we realize that each city is quite unique in the way it affects the chemistry of our nose. Exhaust gases smell different in L.A. than in Detroit.

New York City is recognizable by that rather sharp and thin railway smell that rises from the sidewalk grates at the passage of a subway train; it effuses in the atmosphere and combines with thick burned molecules of warm pretzels and 99c hot-dogs.
L.A.'s tacos and juice fountains are impregnated with sunlight and the rounded salty veil, a pleasing but sunset-sad one, that the breeze brings to you from the mild Pacific.
Venice has its salts mixed with rising moisture, alternating with pungent muddy odors and incense fragrances from the Silk Road.
The moist air of Hong Kong blends with incense, barbecued pork, and dry fish, minced meat and, yet again, the warm and mellow ocean wind.
Rome is an ancient lady. Its travertine porosity releases Canovian effluvia, and the southern sunlight evaporates olden drops from its Vestal temples and Forum vestiges.
There is something wild and clean in Adelaide, Australia; it might be the sand, and you can smell its ochre red.
I can't tell what Montreal smells like.
And Paris, Paris, if our nose could taste, it would taste warm butter and jam on a croissant; if it had a shape, it would be a long and beaky one; if it snored, it would be a cute non-rhotic buzz.
The acrid air goes hand in hand with the ominous sepia browns in Berlin, and you understand what a heavy load that city is carrying upon itself.
Salzburg's scents are imperial and elegant, just like Vienna's, with chocolate aroma filling the prickly winter air.

Does your city have a scent?



  1. Santa Fe, my home town, seems to have been all smells—the fragrance of green chili roasting in the fall; and then, in winter, with the snow, of piñon wood fires, the smoke from fireplaces both outdoors and in. In spring, the dusty wistful fragrance of lilacs that pour over adobe walls and rough-hewn coyote fences. In summer, what? The smell of horses, riding in the arena at Bishop’s Lodge, or visiting the rodeo; the pungent dryness of the yarrow in my mother’s corner flowerbed; and the sulphurous writhing “snakes” lit from the little black pellets in packages of fireworks on the Fourth of July. The juniper tang of gin and twisted lemon peel in party martinis.

    Thanks for this great question and inspiration!

    And surely you've read Patrick Suskind's Perfume? If not, do!

  2. Hi Jay! First let me say that this photo is perfection! Love the moment you captured. My city is also NY and I very much agree with your vivid description. Where we live now is an hour north of the city with more open air smells of the snow, pine trees, and fireplace smoke that is wafting up through chimneys. One smell I hate though is fresh cut grass to the point that I will avoid touching it at all costs. Obviously I have a strong reaction to smells, they trigger memory and emotion in me. Possibly I am not alone in that. Happy to see a new post! Hope all is well!

  3. Hi Jay, just stopping by to say how delightful your blog is. Thanks so much for sharing. I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs, Chris

  4. Monmouth smells of river, trees and grass. I remember a beautiful description of Edwardian London by John Buchan. One of his characters remarks on the smell of fresh paint on wood, flowers and horse shit

  5. Christie,
    Very detailed description. Thank you!

    I took the photo on a cold midtown night! I'm glad you like it!
    I think the right smells can trigger anyone's emotions, but I love the smell of freshly mowed grass! I just love it! And when it's dry, I jump on and off stacks in the fields!

    Hi Chris,
    Thank you very much for stopping by!
    You have a nice blog yourself, very cozy and welcoming!

    Horseshit is one of the smells I miss the most from my homeplace.
    Thanks for stopping by!

  6. I agree with you that each city has a smell. As soon as I started reading this post I started thinking about the mingling scents in each city that combined give it its own smell. I grew up in a small town that smelled woodsy and earthy, with a hint of hamburgers and pizza when downtown. You have me wanting to do some more traveling as I close my eyes and remember the scents of San Francisco, New York, Boston, Orlando, Reno, etc.