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.)

Wander through enough airport duty-free shops, and you’ll eventually happen upon a newish fragrance line called “Scent of Departure,” which consists of perfumes inspired by cities. I first read about them on the Internet, intrigued by the idea of loving a place enough to want to actually smell like it. Philly was snubbed again, but here’s a snippet of the “NYC” description:

You are walking along Times Square under the mild and fresh breeze from the New York harbour. Enjoy this m­odern, crisp and invigorating fragrance with sparkling and sourish notes of apple.

If you ask me, that’s a pretty optimistic interpretation of Manhattan’s smell. (Where’s the pigeon poop?) And yet, absurd as it all is, it reminded me of a story I was told by a scientist named Pam Dalton. Dalton works at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in West Philly, which is the research mecca for smell and taste. She told me about a flight attendant who lost her sense of smell after a car accident severed a nerve behind the bridge of her nose; by the flight attendant’s account, the places she once knew felt totally different without their aromas. “She’d never realized how much she identified cities by their smells,” Dalton said. “She missed that layer, that texture.”

Avery Gilbert—author of What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life, a former Monell guy and an all-around champion smeller—calls that texture a city’s “smellscape,” and he weaves for me such a pretty description of his favorite one, down in the San Francisco Bay area, that it could almost be a Scent of Departure: “Eucalyptus, kelp, saltwater, the tide … ”

Less flattering, alas, is his description of part of Philly’s smellscape that I found in a blog post he wrote a few years back. It included the ginkgo trees that populate West Philly, which he described as smelling like “stinky feet to the fifth power.”

Now, the ginkgo stink is pretty much impossible to argue. At Monell, Pam Dalton brought out a sample of something called butyric acid for me to sniff. It would, she told me, evoke smelly feet or vomit or really pungent cheese, depending on my mind-set. (Lo, the power of context.) I tuned my mind to “cheese,” but the acid smelled to me of cheese and stinky feet and vomit. It’s butyric acid that lends the ginkgo fruit its stench.

Still, the way our city smells has changed over the years, and those changes speak to who we are now just as much as our towering office buildings and great restaurants and sometimes questionable street fashion. Over the phone, I tell Gilbert that the smells of Philly have by all accounts gotten much better in the 20 years since he’s lived here. For one, those green, progressive Big Be­llys that the city adopted in 2008 almost never reek—at least, not as much as the old-
fashioned open-air garbage cans of yore. Other changes, too—especially a recent upgrade in what McCarty delicately calls “biosolid processing” (I’ll spare you the details)—have even helped de-stink once-unbearable spots, like the stretch by the airport that Gilbert rightly remembers as “smelling like an outhouse.” Though the continued existence of the swampy Tinicum Marsh and the oil refinery means some stink is there to stay.

On the upside, our rivers smell better than ever, only occasionally getting just a tad “low-tidey,” McCarty says. I have to concur: I nose-breathed my way along both riverfronts, and never once smelled the horror McCarty described from 30 years ago. The Schuylkill River path smells great, like grass, with earthy, leafy aromas you can also sometimes catch in Washington Square, or biking along Kelly Drive.

This is, to me, one of the best parts of Philadelphia: We are a city of growing things. Our trees (10,786 of them in Center City) not only clean up our air and soak up storm water to prevent sewer overflows, but en masse, just smell really, really good.

Except for the ginkgo. That’s always going to stink.