Philadelphia: Worst-Smelling City In America?

Blame Sansom Street

We’ve been called a lot of things. Fattest City. Most Polluted City. City With the Worst Sports Fans. Ugliest City. Meanest City. Worst-Dressed City. And today, if, God forbid, there were some list-happy blogger or journalist strolling down Sansom Street, we would undoubtedly be declared the Stinkiest, Smelliest, Malodorousest, Putridest, Reekiest City In America.

Disagree? Think this is a bit harsh? Just another meaningless sensationalist title?

If that’s how you feel, stop whatever it is that you’re doing right now, and head down to Sansom Street and see (and smell) for yourself. Specifically, if you visit the stretch just east of Broad, you will find a particularly toxic stew of leaking dumpsters, garbage on the street, feces of undetermined origin, and a large pool of stagnant and undoubtedly pathogen-filled liquid that has been there for years.

“It’s just awful,” says a manager at West Elm, the pricey home decor store at 1330 Chestnut Street with a rear door that opens to the sludge on Sansom. “We don’t even allow our employees go out there to smoke—we actually let them smoke out front.” She blames her neighbor, bowling alley/bar Lucky Strikes, which keeps its food-filled dumpsters on the block. Lucky Strikes didn’t return my call, but the issue is clearly larger than any one establishment.

Up at 15th and Sansom, less than two blocks away, Chris’ Jazz Cafe owner Mark DeNinno has been dealing with foul odors for years. Chris’ front door is on Sansom Street, just down from a series of dumpsters. One of them belongs to Del Frisco’s steakhouse, which has the benefit of having its front door on dumpster-free Chestnut Street. In 2009, after Del Frisco’s refused to do anything about its stinking dumpsters (there were four at the time), DeNinno memorably rolled them around to the side and front of the restaurant and locked them there.

“It’s not the trash,” explains DeNinno. “The trash that restaurants put out everyday, that’s not going to stink. It needs time to, er, mature. It’s what spills out of the bags into the dumpsters and onto the street. That’s what stinks. The sun gets to it, and then you have a Petri dish.”

DeNinno says that since Del Frisco’s management decided to clean the dumpsters and the street around them regularly and double bag all garbage, the problem has greatly improved. But just yesterday, there was the unmistakably vulgar smell of putridity lingering around the neighborhood. DeNinno believes that this wasn’t due to any of the restaurants’ dumpsters but the one belonging to Community Legal Services. “They’re not a restaurant, but they still have wet trash,” he says. “The lunches, pizza parties, who knows? It doesn’t take much.”

CLS’s Operations Manager Pam Moody says that Chris’ contacted her recently and that she reached out to the building’s landlord. “But then I went on vacation and forgot,” Moody explains. She promises to have someone look into it today.

The sources of Sansom Street’s odor problems are debatable. What’s not is that it’s a complete disgrace and one that the city needs to deal with if the businesses won’t. “I’ll get a ticket if my dumpster’s overflowing. I’ll get a ticket if there’s graffiti on it,” says DeNinno. “So why aren’t they handing out tickets for the stench?”