The Smell of Summer in New York City

Fragrance designer Ann Gottlieb takes a walk around New York City to analyze the various smells of the summer — both good and bad.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

New York City residents and visitors know it's an aromatic place during the summer. Beth Fertig of member station WNYC took an olfactory tour with one of the best noses in the biz.

BETH FERTIG reporting:

If you wanted to design a fragrance called Eau de New York in Summer, it would have to consist of car exhaust and sewage.

Ms. ANN GOTTLIEB (Fragrance Designer): It's such a putrid smell coming from that that just is so unpleasant.

FERTIG: That is a sewer grate in Herald Square.

Ms. GOTTLIEB: This to me is also reminiscent of the summer in New York because you smell this kind of garbage-y, sewer-like smell. It's horrible. It smells a little sulfur-like.

FERTIG: Ann Gottlieb doesn't usually go around smelling sewers. She's a fragrance designer who has worked for Calvin Klein and Christian Dior, just to name a few. She says fragrances expand in the heat, making them stronger - the bad smells as well as the good.

Ms. GOTTLIEB: As you approach it you can just smell the delicious smell of baking bread right in the air, so we should go inside.

FERTIG: We enter Parisi's Bakery in Little Italy, drifting on a sweet cloud of fresh-baked bread and a hint of something sour. But the semolina loaves and baguettes we see in the window are baked at another site nearby. Joe Parisi says we were actually lured inside by the warm scent of the pizza place across the street.

Mr. JOE PARISI (Parisi's Bakery, New York City): That's Lombardi's pizza oven. They burn the coal to heat up the oven, so that's what you smell.

FERTIG: Smells are deceptive that way - notoriously difficult to locate. In Chinatown, Gottlieb stops outside a grocery store dried octopus, mushrooms, and fruits are in the air, but so are other smells.

Ms. GOTTLIEB: Right here. Right here is a wonderful garbage smell. Here we are in the corner with actual garbage to one side of us, and potentially very smelly food on the other side of us, so this is a very good odor space, right here.

FERTIG: So is there an equalizing effect here? You know, if you have enough of these food places outsides, will it get rid of the smell of the garbage?

Ms. GOTTLIEB: In fact, that is the way fragrances are made sometimes. There are many malodorous ingredients that form the backbone of some fragrances, but because of the way they are blended and artfully, masterfully put together, the ultimate compound is gorgeous.

(Soundbite of elevator)

FERTIG: But some locations seem impossible to freshen up. We're entering the subway elevator on Canal and Lafayette.

Ms. GOTTLIEB: I never thought about this, but it smells hot. It smells a little bit of bad body odor, maybe a little bit like feet. That's what it smells like in here, it smells like dirty feet.

FERTIG: Our fellow passenger has just one word for it.

Unidentified Woman (Subway Elevator Passenger, New York City): Horrible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GOTTLIEB: Define horrible. Horrible in what kind of way?

Unidentified Woman: Well, you have a bad smell.

FERTIG: Gottlieb says that reaction is typical. Humans have a difficult time describing smells. We tend to use adjectives like good or bad because we aren't used to relying on our noses like other animals.

(Soundbite of subway)

FERTIG: But maybe the subway isn't a lost cause. If good smells can cancel out the bad, Ann Gottlieb says fragrance companies might see a new marketing opportunity in the subways.

Ms. GOTTLIEB: You can have parts of highways that are kept clean because of certain companies or individuals. Why couldn't you sponsor the air in an elevator or a subway stop?

FERTIG: Now try bottling that one. For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.

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