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.)

I am standing in the updraft of a sewer, which doesn’t seem like the place to have an epiphany, but you can’t always control these things.

The backstory here begins with Debra McCarty, the petite blond deputy commissioner of operations at the Water Department, who’s agreed to tromp around the city sniffing with me. (She smells nice, I notice. Gently floral.) I originally called her for help sleuthing out the diaper smell—I suspected it was sewer-related, making it Water Department territory—but can’t resist also taking her down to my old smelling grounds at 20th and Chestnut, a.k.a. Ground Zero of icky “wet washcloth,” to see if she can name that stink.

As we approach the corner, I get nothing but SEPTA diesel. Worried that I’ll miss the opportunity to get some answers, I inhale so frantically that I actually get a little lightheaded, bouncing from corner to corner on the busy street until … wait … whoa. I smell it. Turns out “wet washcloth” isn’t totally accurate. It’s more like “wet washcloth that’s been left to mildew for a few days on the floor of a Port-O-Let.”

“Yesssss!” I holler, and then retch a little. “Do you smell that?” McCarty does, and guesses it’s a sewer. We stand over one of the open-mouth sewers—those gaping holes under the sidewalk—and she gracefully uses her hands to waft sewer air up, like a sommelier selling a good merlot. We get nothing. But then we walk over to the metal grate on the opposite side of the street, and it hits us like a brick to the sinuses. Bingo! Mystery solved.

There are 76,000 sewer openings in Philadelphia, leading to more than 3,700 miles of sewer pipe underground. A Sherlock Holmes of sniffers might note the relative infrequency with which any of their output really reaches the nose, and appreciate the efficiency of our city’s “traps”—dips in the pipes that continually hold water, which serves to block the smell of sewer gases. It’s when a trap gets blocked or leaks that it’s hankie time.

As McCarty and I stand wallowing in the stench, passersby scurry past, shooting us curious looks. They smell it, too. That’s when it strikes me that people in a city are linked by shared olfactory experiences, like members of a family who know the aroma of Nana’s red gravy. Sometimes this shared experience is warm and magical (notice, in the first days of spring, all the shared smiles in Rittenhouse Square); sometimes, as at my sewer, it’s oddly intimate, almost embarrassing—“like our city farted,” as one colleague puts it, poetically. I wonder for a minute about the level of intimacy among Philadelphians back in the pungent days when folks emptied their slop jars out their windows.

“Sanitation,” Sam Katz says sagely, “is a 19th-century innovation.” Sam, a lifelong Philadelphian who is now buried in the business of producing documentaries about the city’s history, assures me that Philly stank horribly for most of its first century. He’s very forgiving about this. “All cities smelled rotten,” he says, detailing the slop, the decomposing animal carcasses from the tanneries that lined the Dock Street and Wissahickon creeks, the garbage … all just sitting there.

It seems impossible to imagine how putrid things were back then. But once McCarty and I wander over to the 1500 block of Sansom, it gets easier. Even Chandler Burr would be hard-pressed to wax poetic on the long row of dumpsters that have just been emptied and hosed down. The rinsing is par for the course; all such receptacles are required by the Streets Department to be cleaned “at a frequency necessary to prevent them from developing a build-up of soil, or becoming attractants for insects and rodents.” This sounds like a good thing, but now there’s water—if you can call it that—in every dip and crevice on the street, little ponds of filth that bake in the sun. It’s a sweet-rancid smell of old garbage that clouds the air, mingling with something still more sinister: old grease.

“Oil and grease are the worst,” McCarty says—this coming from a woman who works in sewage. But one whiff tells me she’s right.