Jason Logan has an interactive smell-map of New York City in the digital version of last Sunday’s NYX.

The author walked around eighteen neighborhoods in Manhattan in one day, noting pronounced or recurrent odors. Logan’s findings are presented in short, gonzo-poetic lists, which are linked to an illustrated map of the island on which his route is also overlaid.

The piece is evocative and funny. Certain smells are New York-centric, perhaps requiring some time spent here to really click, including “everything bagels” in Yorkville and “deep-dust-mineral smell of subway” in Tribeca. Others will be more universally resonant, such as “the pseudo-Irish-pub scent” (“bar cloth; last night’s party”) and “the smell of money” (“tangy; metallic-dusty; Play-Doh”).

Logan’s minimal, list-form narrative works well to give the reader a sense of his experiences. The combination of poetic and visual reference is enough to return one, mentally, to the environments under discussion, and for this reason “Scents and the City” is an effective artwork.

It also happens to raise some compelling issues about the politics of sensuality and space – great news!

Like hearing, smelling is a way of knowing a place that we develop quite powerfully as a compass in our ordinary routine without necessarily realizing that we’ve been developing it at all. Logan’s piece demonstrates how smelling makes us aware of people, territory, objects, physical danger, and activity both past and present. In an urban context, for example, we get a heads-up about things we might want to eat (“cheese Danish,” “deep-fried Oreos,” “delicious shrimp grilling”) or go out of our way not to ingest (“dog feces,” “touch of urine,” “garbage”); noxious chemicals in the air (“spilled gas,” “bus exhaust”); commercial activity (“fresh laundry,” “grocery scent,” “pet store”); and so on. Smell offers many such basic cues.

On another level, but often just as acutely, smelling also alerts us to abstract concepts like class and political difference. One of the most striking items comes from Harlem – “Aggressively (almost territorially) soapy cologne.” This hit me immediately. Similarly, from various other geographic areas, “freshly-shaved men,” “medicinal-smelling person,” “hard-to-place perfume,” “faux-leather fanny pack,” and “subtle-but-rank perfume” each announce the presence of categories of people with definite overtones of class, age, and ethnicity. In some cases, these announcements are deliberate emanations that serve to carve out space for the emanator. In others, they are incidental, though no less spatializing for being that way. (Conspicuously absent from Logan’s descriptions were subway scents – the often-thunderous odor of homelessness or spilled food can transform an entire train car into a private or empty cabin.) Smells can insinuate wealth, aggression, ethnic background, generation, religion, and a great deal more.

As with sound, it seems that one of the most acute olfactory markers of financial means and high-class sensibilities is no smell at all, or the smell of things being made not to smell. The “dark, earthy green” of Gramercy Park, the “clean sweat” of Chelsea, the “cleaning products” of Turtle Bay, the “woman purposely wearing no scent” of Midtown South and the “Gallery Smell” of “air conditioning and nothing else” all contrast quite sharply with the thick lists of pungent food oils, heavy-industrial chemicals, and unsubtle personal hygienic products in neighborhoods like Chinatown and Washington Heights.

18 comments to “Review #1: Scents and the City”

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