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.)

If you’re intent, as I’ve been, on analyzing the city’s smells, garbage seems at first like a, um, throwaway; while Philly hardly has a monopoly on “trash smell,” it comes up here often enough that to dismiss it would be like photoshopping our olfactory landscape, which includes 2,287 dumpsters that dot Center City streets, 449 Big Belly trash cans and 220 recyclers. Plus, there’s trash day—and every day but Saturday and Sunday is trash day somewhere in this city, which means that five days a week, people are putting out their garbage up to 12 hours before pickup. Though if the smell of garbage ever seems to really linger, there’s a chance you aren’t smelling Philly’s trash at all, but rather New York’s: The train that chugs New York City’s garbage to landfills in South Carolina and Virginia runs adjacent to the Schuylkill River Trail.

But Philadelphians aren’t just trash-makers; we’re also food-eaters, and we like to eat at restaurants with facades that open to the sidewalks, so the delicious smells of french fries and French toast and onion soup roll out into shared air. Sometimes we like our feasts moveable, a characteristic you can sniff out in the 634 food trucks and carts that park themselves all over town, spreading their aromas of cheesesteak and meatball and cupcake and pizza and scrapple and Italian sausage and falafel and taco. Maybe more than any other smell, the smell of Center City street food is inescapable, and I think it telegraphs that we like a decent ethnic variety in our diet, that we mostly value the savory over the sweet, and that we don’t hate a little gyro/sausage/burger on the run.

Of course, these sorts of foods don’t just fill our noses, but also our bellies, and since science has proven that what we eat can affect the way we smell, it’s possible that a substantial portion of us have a body odor influenced by Cheez Whiz. That’s debatable, though, as it’s much easier to quantify who among the 1,537,471 of us has a natural bodily scent—what science calls an “odor print”—influenced by, say, cigarettes (roughly 300,000) or pets (also roughly 300,000). Regardless, part of the way we smell as a city is, as is true for any metropolis with lots of people, just us.

There are plenty of other ubiquitous big-city notes to be found here, too, like gasoline and diesel and that unmistakable subterranean damp smell of subway. (With maybe a touch more urine. Sigh.) But there are also notes that seem to be uniquely Philadelphian, at least in combination: hot scrapple and Italian meats and horse droppings that get stuck between old cobblestones. There’s sometimes a hint of river in the air; there is frequently the metallic and dusty smell of new construction; and there is always, always, the smell of fry grease, somewhere.

And of course, there are the mysteries. Like my diaper one at 19th and Cherry, which McCarty and I could only deduce was not, in fact, sewer-related. She’s a good sport, sniffing outside her jurisdiction; she helps me deduce that the odor seems to be blowing out of an air vent in a nearby building that shall remain nameless. Nobody there will return my calls.