This ignoble pastime, known as a “smellwalk” in academic circles, was guided by a kit I downloaded from the Web site of Kate McLean, a designer and researcher at England’s Canterbury Christ Church University. McLean has worked with hundreds of volunteers to identify the odors of cities from Edinburgh to Singapore, and then to map the unique olfactory landscapes, or “smellscapes,” of those locales. (This work is also the focus of McLean’s doctoral dissertation at London’s Royal College of Art.) McLean, known as Smelly Kate to her friends, aims to render visible and permanent sensory information that is invisible and fleeting—and thus regularly ignored, both by individual people and by government agencies, which tend to become interested in olfactory matters only when worrisome stenches arise. (In 1910, as part of an audit of New York’s sanitation system, several luckless city employees were tasked with mapping sewer odors.) McLean says that her smellwalkers frequently begin “almost frightened of smell,” but often end up impressed by what their noses find. “What I’d like to do is . . . make people aware of the fact that there is a smellscape out there,” she told me recently by phone from her office in Broadstairs, a coastal town east of London that, according to one smellmap of the area, smells of printing inks and oranges. “It’s a part of our lives, it has a relevance to us, and quite often it’s much more pleasant than we think.”
On my tour of the Lower East Side, I followed McLean’s pointers, delivered over the phone, to alternate between “smell catching” (passively receiving odors) and “smell hunting” (actively stalking less obvious scents), while being sure to flare my nostrils with each inhale. “Remember that breathing isn’t sniffing,” McLean told me. “If you find a dog, stick your nose into its fur, don’t just sort of sniff around it.” The kit instructed me to log the name of each odor, along with its intensity, duration, pleasantness, expectedness, and any associations it inspired. Outside a bodega on Grand Street, I sniffed a rack of pajama pants whose scent reminded me of musty library books, and I stuck my nose into the back of a garbage truck that emanated a surprisingly sweet perfume of hairspray with a hint of blue cheese.