My New York Obsession

My New York Obsession: The Sweet Smell of This Dirty Old Town

As summer comes to a close, winds of change are in the air. And they carry with them the whiff of hot garbage.

Photo: iStock

When you think of New York City, what comes to mind? The Statue of Liberty? The Empire State Building? Times Square?

So often the visual identity of this city commands our collective imagination. This is understandable if for no other reason than the sheer scale: thousands of buildings and millions of inhabitants spread out over 300 square miles of Manhattan Schist, Inwood Marble, Fordham Gneiss, and former marshlands. But what other ways can we experience this metropolis? As someone who has lived here for 10 years, I find myself fascinated lately by something that, quite frankly, is likely to disgust most people: its smell.

My guess is that if you were to ask people, and New Yorkers specifically, what New York smells like, somewhere high on that list would be “hot summer garbage.” Sure, maybe pizza might be there, but say “hot sidewalk trash” in a roomful of New Yorkers and you can expect a collective groan of shared displeasure.

Where other major cities (Chicago comes to mind) had the opportunity to incorporate back alleys as wide as streets for trash removal into their  plans, New York’s urban design forces residents to pile up their garbage on already-narrow sidewalks. This creates looming, temporary monuments to its vast consumption, not to mention physical, sometimes leaking, obstacles that must be navigated with great care. Add to this already pungent situation the fact that for some reason dogs love to mark their territory on trash bags, as well as the baking effect of the summer sun reflecting off concrete, and you’re left with an olfactory overload. The resulting smell is as overwhelming and perfectly over the top as the city itself; during this now-concluding scorching summer, whole blocks smelled as if the island of Manhattan was rotting.

As it happens, my studio in Bushwick is across the street from a factory that regularly disposes of horsehoe crab parts in large dumpsters left open to the baking summer sun.

As an artist, and a naturally curious person, I’m deeply fascinated by sensory extremes. This tends to manifest itself in my art practice in the form of lush, meditative soundscapes, often with durational drones. I view these compositions as counter-stimulations to the brutality and impossibility of the city, which includes the visual, sonic, and aromatic assault that occurs on a daily basis here. The louder I feel the city to be, the quieter and more contemplative the work I want to create. And as it happens, my studio in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn is across the street from an anonymous factory that regularly disposes of horsehoe crab parts in large dumpsters left open to the baking summer sun. All of these intensities are fuel that I convert to artistic output.

There are particular vibes that dominate the smellscape, some sweeter than others.

When I’m waiting at an intersection for the light to change, I often find myself looking at the trash can and its immediate surrounding area as if it’s a safe space. As a New Yorker, I instinctively never make eye contact with humans, since it’s dangerous and may lead to trouble unless someone else is in trouble or in need, in which case obviously you will stop whatever you’re doing to help that person. Not making eye contact allows me to tune into my surroundings, to focus somewhere neutral like the trash cans that litter—well, not litter—almost every block nowadays. There are particular vibes that dominate the smellscape, some sweeter than others. Trash cans near coffeehouses, for example, offer a sort of trash palette cleanser in the form of coffee grounds and general java spillover; cans near Times Square offer all manner of greasy, sugary, overflowing foodstuffs; and if you’re in certain areas that shall remain nameless, you can expect to encounter oceans of doggie poop bags. Next time you take a long walk, see if you can identify any of these varietals—or more!

When a powerful scent overwhelms a train car, there can be a surprising feeling of joy.

Another smell likely to be on the no-sniff list is that of the subway. When large groups of people—rushing, sweaty, sometimes takeout-eating people—are crammed together into a small space, there is an immense amount of negotiating that must take place if we are to maintain a modicum of civility. I find that if there’s a common element, be it positive or negative, such as an impressively pungent smell (are you really going to eat that tuna fish sandwich right now?), there’s an increased desire to collectively experience a shared misery. When a powerful scent overwhelms a train car, there can be a surprising feeling of joy, as if to say, “We’re all in this awful thing together! We’re not alone! Rejoice!” And “Wow I can’t believe it smells that bad.” In this age of zombification-by-phone, these moments of connection are especially important to our humanity.

A lot has been said, over many years now, about the scrappy, inclusive soul of New York dying and being replaced by the unchecked greed of late-stage capitalism. In many respects, this is true and apparent, from the $2 million studios to bodegas with Bitcoin ATMs. But if you stop and smell the air—really breathe deep and take in the wonder of this town—you’ll realize that New York is still New York.

If you stop and smell the air, you’ll realize that New York is still New York.

Not all of the grit has been washed away, at least not yet. You’re still here. And so is the smell. The next time you’re wandering around the city, stop and smell the trash; there’s a story in all of it.

Artisanal stench? That’s pretty damn New York.

Besides—that smell? It’s yours. It’s mine, too. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s also worth remembering that we’re each contributing to those piles of trash. It’s not too late to look for ways to reduce the amount of waste we generate. (To read about some of the city’s initiatives in this area, check out this page.) And while we may never eliminate the New York smell, we can do our best to keep it small and local. Artisanal stench? That’s pretty damn New York.

Photos by Man Bartlett

Man Bartlett is a human and a radical seeker, living and working in New York City. He has exhibited and performed both nationally and internationally over the past 10 years. He was also recently published in Gossamer magazine’s inaugural issue. A native of Philadelphia, he still pronounces it “wudder.” You can learn more about Bartlett on his web page, manbartlett.com.