Decoding Philly’s Street Scents

What we smell–and how we smell it–says as much about Philadelphia as our politics, our architecture and our cheesesteaks. (Mmmm, cheesesteaks. That smells good.)

For almost two years now, I’ve lived on a charming street in Fairmount where verdant window boxes and rows of trees create a pleasant sort of leafy smell whenever the wind blows. Before this, I lived for three years on Chestnut Street, which my husband rechristened “Stinky Street” one night when the block’s usual perfume of gasoline, yeast and old wet washrag seemed even more oppressive than usual. The nickname, like the smell, hung around and somehow morphed into Steenkychestnut, one word, and worked its way permanently into our couple’s lexicon. Now we look back on the time we shared on Steenkychestnut with fondness and nostalgia, funk notwithstanding.

The years spent with that enigmatic washrag stink marked the beginning of my curiosity about the smells of our city. To be fair, I’ve always been smell-aware: Notes I make while reporting almost always have olfactory notations like “Spearmint breath!” or “Office smells like Kleenex lint!!” My emotional reactions to whiffs of catfish or honeysuckle, the
aromas of my Tennessee youth, put Proust and his madeleines to shame. Still, it wasn’t until I moved to Philadelphia that I stopped, often, tilted my head, sniffed the air, and said—to a co­mpanion, to myself, to the cosmos—“What is that smell?” Since we moved from St­eenkychestnut, my biggest question mark is the corner of 19th and Ch­erry, which I pass every day on my walk to work and which smells inexplicably of diaper—faintly powdery, damply plastic. To live in a big city is to live with endless odorous mysteries.

But to live in a big city is also to find comfort in the smell of the familiar. “Meat frying with onions, that’s home to me,” sighs a friend, a homegrown Philly girl. That onion-grease bouquet of cheesesteak is, in fact, a popular pick among people I’ve polled on the definitive scents of Philadelphia, but others come up, too: the aroma of just-baked bread with a tinge of bleach near Sarcone’s; the heavy beer/piss/hot dog smell of South Street on a Friday night; the perfume of lilies and hot horses over by the Liberty Bell, like Easter Sunday in an Alabama barn. If you could bottle all these things and give them a hard shake, you’d have a good start to an Eau de Philly.

And yet, smell seems to rarely s­urface in conversations about civic identity. That’s not just true for Philly; when you think about our cultural touchstones in general—s­kylines, sports, fashion, food, accents, weather—aromas rarely come into play. Chicago is the Windy City, not the City That Smells Like Chocolate (though it does, thanks to the Blommer Chocolate factory). Paris is the City of Light, not of Dog Poop and Cigarettes. For this, I suppose we, the City of Cheesesteaks, Hot Horses and Old Wet Washcloths, should be grateful.

Or should we? Not long ago, I read a fascinating article in which Chandler Burr—curator of the Center of Olfactory Art at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design—ranked the 10 smelliest cities on the planet, from Dallas to Mombasa. The designation wasn’t an insult; Burr rhapsodized like Whitman over Mumbai’s gutter water and New Orleans’s “old beer, frying fat, mud and lush grass.” By the end of his ode, I was actually disappointed Philadelphia didn’t rank. (Clearly, Burr’s never spent time on Chestnut.)

What really struck me, though, was Burr’s thesis. “Cities, like people,” he wrote, “have their own smell, their own body odors and perfumes that take on personalities.” It’s like the way that someone’s house smells—of laundry, or cooking, or cats—says something about its owners. I’ve begun wondering what our city smells say about us as Philadelphians. I don’t know what Burr might have surmised, but after spending the better part of a summer sniffing around Center City, I like to imagine he’d nose out the soul of a city that’s both rich and varied, old and new.

I also like to imagine him at the corner of 19th and Cherry, sniffing deeply, tilting his head, and trying to figure out what the hell that diaper smell is.