The Top 25 Bad Smells That Remind You You’re In New York City

This past December, as I was driving over the Triboro Bridge toward Brooklyn, I was suddenly hit with that old familiar Triboro fragrance, best described as “week-old beef with broccoli.”

Interstate 278 - New York

Photo by Flickr user Doug Kerr

To me, catching that whiff just after going through the tolls is usually the first olfactory sign I’ve arrived in New York City.

I posted this observation on Facebook/Twitter, and was surprised to get over 75 emphatic responses from Scouting NY readers describing the very particular stinks and stenches that serve as daily reminders of what city we’re in. I chose my favorite 25 bad smells below; be sure to leave your own choice NYC odors in the comments! (er, and you probably shouldn’t be eating when you read this list).

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1) We always went straight to Central Park when we came in when I was a kid, so my answer is horse shit. I really feel like I’m in NYC when I smell horse shit. – Brittany S.

Central Park

Photo by Flickr user Tim Scott

2) Burnt pretzels from the street vendors. – Doris K.

Pretzel

Photo by Flickr user Jonathan Percy

3) Early morning fish water in downtown Flushing when the fish markets dump yesterday’s ice, and the fish slime runs down Main Street towards the 7 station for commuters to gag on. – Kerry B.

NYC - Queens - Flushing - Sleeping with the Fishes-1

Photo by Flickr user Wally Gobetz

4) It’s not there anymore, but the smell of Sbarro in Penn Station still seems to linger near the entrance to the E train. – Wendy M.

Sbarro Pizza 3

Photo by Flickr user Phil Nolan

5) There is a spot down in Penn station, near some stairs that lead to the 1 train platform. You’re always at risk for foul smells in NYC, but this one spot smells like all the urine in the entire city flowed down and collected right there. – Anna T.

34 Penn Station

Photo by Flickr user Matt Johnson

6) West Side Highway sewage treatment plant – as you head downtown towards 125th St ramp, it always delivers a gaseous reminder it’s there. – Joanne L.

wastewater

7) Combo of people chain smoking to the left and exhaust fumes to the right while you stand in line for an eternity at the LaGuardia taxi stand. This is almost immediately followed by the inevitably unfortunate smell of the taxi you finally get into. – Melissa B.

New York Taxi Stand at LaGuardia Airport Photo i096 by Grant Wickes

Photo by Flickr user Grant Wickes

8) Randomly encountering the smell of popcorn and Nuts4Nuts on the street, because it oddly smells like urine when it’s out of context – and has ruined popcorn for me. – Jeff L.

Just kicking along the sidewalk

Photo by Flickr user Jonathan Percy

9) Overly deodorized subway elevators covering up the smell of God knows what from God knows when. – Jane I.

Elevator Shaft - DeKalb Avenue Station

Photo by Flickr user Steve Soblick

10) Burning rubber and exhaust fumes in the Holland Tunnel – sweet foul-odored memories of childhood trips to the city. – Emily R.

Holland Tunnel

Photo by Flickr user Roey Ahram

11) When I was kid I loved the sulphurous stench of Flushing Bay at low tide because it reminded me of egg salad sandwiches. – Nancy T. / Flushing Bay low tide merged with LaGuardia jet fuel stewed with vehicle exhaust fumes from the Grand Central. – Amy V.

Flushing bay

Photo by Flickr user ArtJoy4Ever

12) PATH train musty smell. – Jason D. / The unmistakable musty smell in PATH stations. – Peter R.

PATH Train

Photo by Flickr user Axel Drainville

13) Entering the city at night on a rainy trash pickup day, opening the cab door and smelling the wet garbage left out on the street. It’s trash and wet plastic but smells like I’m home. – Cindy Y.

Untitled

Photo by Flickr user Troy

14) The smell of shisha when walking up Steinway street (I know many who hate it but it’s probably one of my favorite things living in Astoria) – Romina A.

El Khaiam Cafe

Photo by Flickr user Ben Piven

15) I used to live on Grand St, and take the Chinatown Bus from Boston. There is the WORST smell in NYC emanating from a sewer grate on the northwest corner of Grand & Chrystie. Burning rubber + day old fish vendor refuse + sewage. – Tamara R.

chri

16) Durian in Chinatown. Good lord. – Manola P.

Durian

Photo by Flickr user Shinobi21

17) Coming off the ACE at Penn, just past the HSBC there’s a Subway. I take this path towards my job every single day, and every day…that smell, what is it? It’s like rotten wet bread mixed with day-old meat. – Eric H.

hsbc

18) Living on Mulberry Street during San Gennaro festival. The smell after 5 days of sausage fat and onions being fired up at 10am. – John R.

San Gennaro festival, Sep 2014 - 03

Photo by Flickr user Ed Yourdon

19) The acrid odor of the PATH tubes. I was told decades ago that it was because the lightweight aluminum PA-1 -2 and -3 trains had rubberized brake shoes, but those trains are all gone and the stench remains. Maybe it’s just a testament to how little fresh air reaches the stations, but even the very shallow one at Herald Square has it. – Mike J.

NJ: PATH Train

Photo by Flickr user Wally Gobetz

20) Port Authority bus terminal. Smells like cinnamon-sugar-coated mildew and dirty humans. – Anna T.

Port Authority Bus Terminal

Photo by Flickr user Rose Trinh

21-25) [Editor’s note: I’m just going to combine these…] The morning batch of subway urine has made quite an impression on me. – Valerie R. / Steaming August night. Astor Place station. Urine. It’s like the subway is literally cooking urine. – Kathryne B. / The combination of baking garbage and piss wafting up through the subway grates that are the essence of summer in NY. – Diane P. / The inexplicable chicken soup smell in my neighborhood on the occasional early morning or weekends when NONE of the restaurants are open. – Ann R. / Urine. Everything smells like urine. – Jeff B.

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Or, to sum it all up, I’ll leave it to Elaine L., who writes:

Smells like heaven to me, each time I return home.

-SCOUT

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23 comments

  1. The smell of the East River at low tide along Shore Blvd in Astoria Park, especially if you climb down and walk on the rocks.

  2. Some subway stations (for literally years, the connection between E and the Lex at 51st) that smells like Parmesan cheese vomit.

  3. Back in the early 80’s, my aunt and uncle had a gag NYC guidebook, which pointed out that the subway stations were cleaned daily with a urine scented disinfectant. That line always stuck with me, especially whenever I go into subway stations.

  4. the 4/5 platform at 59th street has held the same stench for 15 years. i can only describe it as hot, rotting corpse at a petting zoo.

    • OMG yes. I’ve always said you could blind fold me and put me on a subway can and I would know I was at 59th St!!!!! And I thought I was the only one. Bravo Amanda, bravo,

  5. Line 4/5 125th st smells like weed all the time…and hotdogs.

  6. The Newtown Creek, separating Long Island City (Queens) and Greenpoint (Brooklyn). Oily, slimy, reeking of gas station goo. There is an effort to improve the Creek to make it just slimy and reeking of gas station goo.

  7. That weird combination of urine and subway steam.

  8. I know the Penn Station area has gotten a lot of play on this list, but I don’t think #13 could possibly hold a candle to trash day on 34th St at high noon on a 100-degree day. Person-height trash piles are literally boiling inside flimsy plastic bags. That has to be what hell smells like.

  9. The D train stop at the Bowery @ 4-5pm on a hot day in August, OMG. Rotten fish, urine & ice all mixed up.

  10. Bags of fish.,,melting ice flowing on the subway floor in the summer at grand street. Putrid smell of you ask me

  11. The picture for #17 is incorrect. The Subway near the HSBC coming off the ACE is in the LIRR corridor, right across from Chickpea and the staircase up to Amtrak. There isn’t a Subway at street level near the HSBC on West 34th & 8th (where the picture was taken). I pass by that disgusting Subway (which smells worse than every other Subway, and what’s with people eating sandwiches at 8:30 a.m.?!?!) every morning coming off the E train.

  12. Great post as ever, Nick, but really, “over the Triboro Bridge” (ack RFK bridge) towards _Brooklyn_?? you have to transit quite a bit of Queens before you get to B’klyn. You may have been headed there ultimately, but c’mon, please don’t pretend we don’t exist.

  13. In the 1950s and 60s a truck from Van Iderstine and Sons would occasionally lumber through the neighborhood emitting what seemed to my kid brain to be the true terrifying stench of death and decay. I just looked up the firm — having left NYC in 1974 — to find that they were a fat rendering firm. Could not tell if the company still operates, or if such trucks still crawl the earth. Anyone know?

  14. The smell of wet dog on sidewalks of the Upper East Side. Much worse and noteable on humid, warm, rainy days.

  15. While I’ve avoided it for years, there was a time when I had to take the Franklin Ave Shuttle to the C train at Franklin, and at the foot of the stairs there was this incredibly overwhelming smell of old bandaid. It was SO specifically old bandaid. My roommate was convinced that there used to be a fruit stand at the bottom and that they bricked it over with the vendor still inside.

    You could tell which people took the route every day because we would all audibly hold our breaths at the same point before it began.

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  17. I say it’s a combined aroma of diesel at La Guardia and pretzels, even though La Guardia is not surrounded by pretzels.

  18. Not there anymore but, the stench of Fresh Kills landfill permeated the air in Staten Island years back. I was working for the City Volunteer Corp on a Greenbelt Park project and the unmistakeable smell would hover over us in the summer. At one point, I remember they tried to make it better by using lemon deodorizer to tone it down.

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