Monday, 22 July 2013

A heatwave - and the urban nature it lets cyclists sniff out

A few nights in the last few weeks, I’ve been working late and, realising I needed groceries but would miss the closing time of stores near my apartment, I’ve opted to make a treat out of a chore. I’ve headed five blocks north from my office and ridden into Central Park, heading for the Fairway Market on Broadway. I’ve swept downhill from Central Park South, leaving behind the oppressive heat thrown off by New York’s buildings and streets in the current heatwave for the marginally cooler park, surrounded by trees yet overlooked by skyscrapers.

Central Park: a treat to ride in - for those with a taste in
heated manure
But on Thursday night, after a particularly sulphurously hot day, the experience had an unexpected, added edge. Almost as if I’d ridden into a cloud of some pollutant, I found myself inhaling as thick a concentration of horse manure smells as I’ve ever experienced. The tourist carriages that I often follow in the morning from their stables on the lower west side had clearly been busy that day, I realised. That had left a generous coating of manure baking on the asphalt in 100F heat, with predictably stinky results.

The experience brought home to me how vital a part smell plays in the full-frontal assault of riding a bike in any large city during a heatwave. In New York, however, it currently plays a particularly special role. The city has been better in its gentrification push over the last 20 years at improving how it looks than how it smells. Many of the odours consequently represent the forces that even so controlling an administration as Michael Bloomberg’s still hasn't managed to rein in. They tell a story about the city that’s wafted only into the nostrils of the still fairly select bunch of people prepared to ride a bike in New York on a day when the thermometer is showing over 90F and one’s glasses steam up instantly one steps outdoors.
The East River: tell-tale salty smells
There are, of course, some smells that persist year-round. Sometimes when I'm riding by the East or Hudson Rivers, a boat's wash slaps into the promenade. As the spray splashes against the railings, there’s a salty smell in the air, an unmistakeable reminder that New York is a maritime city and that the rivers, as well as carrying water from upstate, are inlets of the sea. It’s the smell of the secret of New York’s success – a gateway between the interior that vessels sailing up the Hudson River serve and the wide Atlantic Ocean out beyond the harbour.

The same goes for the smell that meets me as I speed on my bike down the western side of the Manhattan Bridge. I think it’s a mixture of boiled duck, five-spice mixture and plum sauce, but there’s an unmistakeable smell to areas with a high concentration of Cantonese restaurants, like Chinatown, where the bridge emerges in Manhattan. In my mind’s eye, the smell forever has me sitting in one of the countless eating places in the heart of Hong Kong, at a Spartan formica table, with plates of steaming food being brought to me. The two places smell exactly the same.

Then there are the smells that testify to how my fellow New Yorkers’ behaviour changes as the heat rises.

Earlier in the summer, when the Hudson River Park was still closed off firmly every night at dusk, a late night ride down the neighbouring bike path was apt to prove a trial. As I passed groups of people congregated along the low stone wall by the path, the distinct, herbal smell of the marijuana they were smoking would tickle the upper reaches of the inside of my nose. By very late on a Friday night or early Saturday morning, the path was apt to become an obstacle course, as happy dope smokers milled around, their risk perceptions – seldom a strong point of path users – worsened still further by the weed.

The path is at least less cluttered now that the park is generally open late into the night. But, as I ride by the park’s helpfully-placed bushes, the strong smell bears testimony to park users’ continued desire to smoke dope while watching New Jersey’s lights becoming fuzzier and fuzzier.
Children play round a fire hydrant in The Bronx:
they'll be off for a barbecue later in the park
The city’s public parks smell different in daytime heat too. Taking myself once again out of the city on Saturday, I rode up (for the first time) to The Bronx, bound over the city line to Westchester County. In The Bronx, I found children playing in the water from opened fire hydrants. In Van Cortlandt Park, my nostrils and ears encountered a distinctive mixture: firelighter liquid, loud Latin music and the smell of barbecued meat, wafting from the elaborate set-ups that scores of families had lugged into the park.

But probably the most telling smells are the ones that testify to how much organic matter still lies festering, largely unnoticed, round the greatest city on earth.

It’s tempting to think of New York as forged out of concrete and steel, an entirely manmade creation. I’ve recently discovered that that’s not entirely fanciful. Midtown and lower Manhattan sprouted their skyscrapers precisely because the bedrock there is close to the surface. Many of the buildings there are plugged straight into the solid, unyielding bedrock, with no messy soil in between.

But the stench in Central Park is a reminder how the city continues to consume vast quantities of organic materials. Horses’ oats and hay end up caked on Central Park’s asphalt. The smell of rotting food from humans’ garbage, which I often smell as I cycle past the sanitation department depot in Chelsea, is far more widespread in summer. It hangs around the big piles of garbage bags piled on the sidewalk as the sun makes the discarded fruit and vegetables inside decay all the faster.
A New Yorker shelters from the glare of the sun:
and the smell of the sewers
Worse still is the stink emanating from some of the drains. The city might have eliminated graffiti and broken windows above ground. But there’s something far less readily controllable about the life of a drain. The whiff that wafts up from some gratings puts me in mind of a slum in Mumbai or Kolkata, where the same malodorous ingredients mingle in the open air.

Yet the smelly life that springs forth when the mercury jumps to 90 is far less surprising to a cyclist than to most people. Cyclists are close enough to see the rat dart across the cycle path, smell the garbage truck that’s blocking the road and notice year-round the surprising number of horses still at work in the city. All testify to a secret, natural life that teems under the city’s streets, in its open places and in hidden-away stables. Cities have been giving off these smells since the dawn of civilisation - the odour of people living close together satisfying their various natural needs. However much he or she might smarten up the city's look, no future mayor looks likely to eliminate them.


  1. Just this morning as I rode to the next town over, I wrinkled my nose as I passed one of the local bars. There's something about "morning after" bar smell that is unique and revolting.

    But while great minds may think alike, a great smellers observe similar things, only you write about them in a way that engages!

    Smell . . . Bike On!

    1. SouthLakesMom,

      Thanks for your comment - and your kind words.

      You're right about the morning-after bar smell. Mind you, I lived for a few years in Edinburgh, one of the world's great brewing cities, near the Scottish & Newcastle Brewery. While I love beer, the stench from a large brewery truly ranks with "wet dog" among the most disgusting smells known to man.

      All the best,


  2. You write, "The city has been better in its gentrification push over the last 20 years at improving how it looks than how it smells." I couldn't disagree more. Air pollution is considerably -- I would even say profoundly -- less pronounced now than in the early 1990s. The formerly constant acrid sensation in the mouth, throat and lungs from breathing in particulates, carbon monoxide, and smog has largely been banished -- except of course in neighborhoods burdened with bus depots, oil tank farms and the like. Similarly, if subjectively, odors from rotting food, trash, homo sapiens, etc. all are less evident as well. Yes, of course, smells of all kinds abound more in summer than winter, but the secular trend downward is unmistakable.

    1. Charles,

      Thank you once again for your wise commenting.

      I didn't really mean that the smell hadn't got better. I meant that the looks had improved faster than the smells. But your knowledge and experience of the city is vastly greater than mine, so perhaps you think the smell has improved faster than the looks have.

      I must say my impression remains that the graffiti-scarred city of 25 years ago has improved its looks out of all recognition. If the smell has improved more it must have been really, really stinky back when.

      But I bow to your superior learning...



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