Including city smells in urban sociology

The word Chicago may be linked to smelling onions so why not try to track down distinctive smells in Chicago?

It’s a gorgeous Friday afternoon in July, and we’re walking through Archer Park with Diego and Juliet’s nine-year-old daughter Paula. We’ve gone in search of Juliet’s latest smell interest, an odor she noticed last fall when Paula was taking tumbling classes at the park. While Paula practiced forward rolls, Juliet and Diego killed time at the playground. And that’s where she smelled it: the unmistakable, nostalgic odor of Silly Putty.

Haven’t heard about Silly Putty in a while or maybe never? Well, it’s the putty that bounces, stretches, and (most bizarrely) snaps when given a blow, and it comes in a plastic egg. According to Juliet, it also has a distinctive “plastic-y chemical type of smell.” It’s this smell she recalls wafting over the playground from Archer Park’s industrial western edge on those fall evenings…

All this assumes of course that the city’s odor detectives are successful in tracking down an odor’s source. What happens, I ask, in cases like ours where investigators show up only to find that the smell has left the building? Omenazu says this happens a lot, and unfortunately, there’s not much the city can do.

“Odor is very transient,” he says. “It might be intense now, but in the next ten minutes, it’s gone.”

Smell also poses the additional challenge of being a moving target. “Sometimes it’s from Indiana” Omenazu says. “Sometimes it’s from as far away as Peoria. There was a case of a gas smell that everybody was smelling. … People’s Gas discovered that [the leak] wasn’t even in Chicago.” One complaint and one investigation may yield nothing, but Omenazu suggests persistence usually wins out. When I ask him how often he inspects facilities, he says if there are complaints “then we visit them as many times as we get complaints.”

All of this makes me think that somehow urban sociology has failed to deliver on urban smells. What we often say or show about cities often has to do with sight and sounds. Think of maps, impressive photos, words on a page, movies. But isn’t a key part of the urban experience the smells? For example, walking around in New York City during ASA two weekends ago was not only an impressive visual and auditory experience: there were plenty of competing smells. And, I would contend that midtown Manhattan smells a little different on the whole than Chicago’s Loop.

There is no easy way to put smells back into descriptions of cities outside of visiting them. However, it is a key part of experiencing cities and should not be overlooked.