Saturday, August 25, 2012

American Smellscapes: A Fresh Take on Philadelphia

In the new September issue of Philadelphia Magazine, editor Christine Speer Lejune gives readers a tour of the local smellscape, ranging from the Schuylkill River to Center City to the Tinicum Marsh. She describes herself as “smell-aware” and I’m inclined to agree.
. . . there are also notes that seem to be uniquely Philadelphian, at least in combination: hot scrapple and Italian meats and horse droppings that get stuck between old cobblestones.
Nice. I especially liked the “onion-grease bouquet of cheesesteak.”

Along the way she teams up with a lady from the Philadelphia Water Department to identify the source of a longstanding diaperish malodor at 20th and Chestnut. They find it emerging from one of the city’s 76,000 sewer openings. [Dude!—Ed.] As they are, uh, savoring the streetcorner stench, a light bulb goes on:
That’s when it strikes me that people in a city are linked by shared olfactory experiences, like members of a family who know the aroma of Nana’s red gravy. Sometimes this shared experience is warm and magical (notice, in the first days of spring, all the shared smiles in Rittenhouse Square); sometimes, as at my sewer, it’s oddly intimate, almost embarrassing—“like our city farted,” as one colleague puts it, poetically. I wonder for a minute about the level of intimacy among Philadelphians back in the pungent days when folks emptied their slop jars out their windows.
Now there’s a powerful thought.

One can imagine a Center City conversation in the 18th Century:
Mrs. Rittenhouse: “OMG! David, do you smell that?” 
Mr. Rittenhouse: “Why, yes I do Hannah.” 
Mrs. Rittenhouse : “The Franklins sure have been eating a lot of scrapple this week!” 
Mr. Rittenhouse: “Indeed.”

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