New York: A Series of Smells

By Naomi Hirano

Week 51

It has been 121 days since my exodus out of America – out of New York City. Having recently moved to Tokyo, I often crave smelling New York again, especially the smell of a New York summer. The sometimes pungent, sometimes musty, but never in any way bland, the smell that New York wholeheartedly offers is what I miss. I spent exactly five years in ‘smelly’ New York before moving to Tokyo, which happens to have its own set of pungency and musty odors. Memories are most instantaneously triggered by smell – it is the only sense that travels directly to the brain without having to pass through the thalamic relay station. Part of New York’s seduction is that the architecture has gone through so many different hands. Consequently, architectural designs of all fashion have flourished. In the process, the scent of those who have passed through it has stuck, intertwining with its current dwellers. Smell and place comes as a pair. Though a building may stay up for decades, the scent around it will change depending on the occupier. On a micro level, a building is always transforming upon human movement. New York is surely no amateur on transformation and human movement.
Walking is the best way to get to know a city like New York. I spent my last month on the upper west side, which may very well be one of my favorite areas to walk around in Manhattan. At 3:00AM, the sprinklers at Columbia begins its ghostly routine of watering the lawn. In concert with a few operating lamps and the academic village of Italian renaissance buildings, it becomes an eerie experience- just as if you’ve mistakenly entered a world in-between. Walk out onto the streets, the odor of rotting trash reeks, back in New York City you are. Apparently, at 3:00AM the waste collectors come by, too. The dichotomy of experiences is something the city will offer endlessly.

After hearing about an office building with a jungle-like atrium on the first floor, I remember dragging my friend to the Ford Foundation. Regarded as one of Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo’s first major architectural success, the space was designed to encourage interaction between employees, visitors, and the foundation. The wild foliage in the center was really just icing. By challenging the typical interior landscape, Roche organized the space so that office workers could glimpse over each other’s working space. Potentially perverse, the space is a bold beginning to the ideas of transparency. Because the central opening allows the space to be filled with natural light, it becomes a wonderful spot to people watch – though the challenge is to find people to watch.
Then, we have places only alive in pictures. After the demolishment of Five Pointz in Queens in 2014, I realized how fragile a city could be. Once a mecca for graffiti artists, Five Pointz is now dead and will be resurrected as another condominium complex. The smell of fumes from spray cans no longer linger. The Wolkoff family, owners of the property, will continue with their scheme of erecting two high-rise towers with 800 luxury units and 200 affordable units. As financial authorities overhaul the cityscape, I fear that New York will no longer be able to retain much of its heterogeneous palette of smells. Much of New York’s diversity prevails because it has always been a center for immigrants, art, and culture.
Change is at every corner. The beauty of New York City lies within its ability to morph. Every moment is a fleeting moment. As many people transfer in and out, the cityscape shifts – continuously fluctuating between being compressed and decompressed. I wonder what New York City will smell like if I ever return. The sights will surely change though inside, I hope I will still catch a whiff of the New York I once knew.