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City Scents

December 10, 2008

One of my favorite passages by Pat Conroy is when he writes about Charleston in The Lords of Discipline, saying “the city turns inward upon itself, faces away from visitors, alluringly contained in its own mystery. The city has a smell, a fecund musk of aristocracy, with the wine and the history of the lowcountry aging beneath the verandahs, the sweetly decadent odors of lost causes.”

I completely agree.

I could be blindfolded when being driven into Charleston, and I’d know it the moment we hit the lowcountry–the scent, whether you love it or hate it, is that distinct. And I started wondering how this was similar to or different than New York City.

Recently, while taking a taxi in to Manhattan from La Guardia, I rolled down my window to the smells of the Big Apple. Since the weather has turned more frigid, the city has definitely smelled nicer.  The air is crisp and clear.  Like Charleston, New York City’s scent has been hundreds of years in the making, but it’s different. Bigger. Grittier. More industrialized.

Charleston is welcoming, but she’s weary of her visitors. In her past, visitors have only meant future change, something that Charleston doesn’t really care for. But change is the mantra of New York City, and the skyscrapers seem to gesture to visitors in the same way the open-arm staircases do in the lowcountry. Each subway stop seems to have a distinct smell, as the trains move people towards the common purpose of success in this city. The taxies and cars smell all at once of exhaust and burning rubber–the faster they can get to their destination the better.

But there’s another layer, too.  The smells of the bakeries and pizzerias linger in the air, family businesses that have been the core of this changing city for years.  The smell of the horses in Central Park, which remind me of Charleston. Now that its Christmas time, the scent of pine also lingers, as people buy Christmas trees and wreathes around the city.

It’s a welcoming scent in its own way, very special to this city.  The tourists’ excitement as they are herded around the city, mixed with the offensive odor of the homeless, the sweat of the blue-collared workers, the leather briefcases of the businessmen, the ink-y scent of the newspapers that are passed out on the street corners, the hot dog stands, the paint of the artists, the burning lights on Broadway and the faint smell of aging, aristocratic brownstones on the Upper East side.  All mingling with the sweet, blanketed scent of Marinara sauce.

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