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You Smell That?

An Olfactory-Bulb Tour of the City That Stinks

Smell of Steve Inc.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 9/19/2001

Seven hundred million dollars. That's how much Americans spend per annum on underarm deodorant. $700 million. For the record, I'm not going to begrudge my compatriots' obsession with odeur de corps. After all, I once spent a few summertime weeks in Russia riding crowded streetcars. (Talk about biological warfare . . . ) Suffice it to say, smell matters. A lot.

Cities--regardless of what some smart alecks might claim--do not have armpits. But they do have odors. And Baltimore reeks. Our burg assaults the nostrils with the good, the bad, and what can charitably be called "the curious."

Take the Abell neighborhood, where I've lived for three years. The act of retrieving my plastic-wrapped Sun off the front porch is often accompanied by a bouquet that suggests someone spilled 5,000 gallons of Kool-Aid in the adjacent gutter. The source of this fruity essence is a low-slung brick building at the corner of 30th and Barclay streets, about half a block from my house. The sign over the door reads beverage capital corp., but everyone in these parts simply calls it the "Snapple Plant," in deference to one of the more prominent brands bottled there.

I suspect the source of the odors is the ominous cloud of steam that gushes from the plant's rooftop. Sometimes the smells are nondescriptly fruity. Other times they're highly specific--Oh, it's grapefruit day. Occasionally the treacly aroma that hangs over the block is oddly reminiscent of . . . sugar doughnuts.

The main downside to living next to a bottling plant is the insistent rumble of tractor-trailers, whose pneumatic breaks groan late into the evening. There are also certain introspective moments when you just don't want to smell sugar doughnuts. Of course, it could be worse. I could live in Essex.

Now, I don't mean to denigrate the folks in this fine eastern-Baltimore County community, but there's no escaping the fact that for more 80 years (thanks, in part, to the intractable laws of gravity) Essex has been on the business end of the city's toilets. The Department of Public Works has run a sprawling wastewater-treatment facility on the shores of the Back River since 1912.

One hundred years ago, Baltimore had the dubious distinction of being one of the largest cities in the world without a comprehensive sewer system. What we did have was some 90,000 cesspools and a hodgepodge of private sewer lines that drained without fanfare into the nearest body of water. The never-reticent H.L. Mencken wrote in his book of boyhood reminiscences, Happy Days, that summertime Baltimore "smelled like a billion polecats." Making matters worse, the cesspools would often overflow, requiring a visit from a brave crew of workers operating a wagon-borne pump-and-hose contraption called an "odorless excavating apparatus" (which, old accounts suggest, was a bold-faced bit of doublespeak on par with anything in 1984.)

Cruise east on Eastern Avenue today and, just after you pass beneath North Point Boulevard, a pair of gold, ovate domes come into view. This is the modern face of sewage treatment. Each 150-foot-tall "egg" holds 3 million gallons of sewage being "eaten" by an army of poo-loving bacteria. While waiting at a stoplight near Eastpoint Mall during a recent visit, I couldn't help making an uneasy link between these golden structures and the nearby Golden Corral buffet restaurant. (But then, the Golden Corral's parking lot was full, so perhaps I'm the only one who makes the rude connection.)

In any event, informal interviews with folks at a shopping center in the shadow of the plant reveal that it's far less stinky here than it used to be, before the cutting-edge eggs went up in 1992. A pair of Ames cashiers taking a smoke break told me it only gets unpleasant on particularly humid days, or after a heavy rain. The affable bartender at the Blue Lagoon, a colorful bit of Caribbean escapism overlooking the Back River, echoed these sentiments. She said the "shit plant"--apparently the colloquial term for the place--actually benefits her tavern, as the plant's workers often take their happy hour there. (And, she says, regale her with giggly slogans suggested by their daily toil: "Your number twos are our number one priority"; "When you flush, think of us.") I myself strolled along the banks of the mighty Back River without detecting so much as an unwanted whiff. (I did get a nostril-load during an earlier stop at the Public Works Museum at Eastern Avenue and President Street, housed in an ornate vintage pumping station that sends 22 million gallons of used toilet water eastward to Essex every day.)

Moving on to more pleasant sensations: In a former life, I worked in Hunt Valley. On certain mornings, as I tooled bleary eyed along Interstate 83 toward my beige-walled cubicle, I would be overcome by a cloyingly pungent buttery scent, as if someone was making microwave popcorn in the back seat of my Chevette. No doubt it was butter day at the McCormick flavor plant.

Baltimore's hoary spice maker has been perfuming Maryland since 1889, with the last of its operations decamping to Hunt Valley from downtown Baltimore in the late 1980s. The company's spice mill and industrial-flavor division (which makes, well, flavors) reside in as bland an industrial park as has ever been conceived, but walking among its anonymous brick buildings is exotic and unusual. Tens of millions of pounds of spices and herbs are processed here a year, and each little waft of breeze is alive with enticing smells: nutmeg, cinnamon . . . what's that? Allspice? Cloves? I recall when these winsome winds floated around the Inner Harbor, thanks to a nine-story McCormick plant that once loomed over the 400 block of Light Street. And I'm not alone.

"We still get lots of calls on our 800 number with people saying, 'Oh, how I miss how wonderful it used to smell down in the Inner Harbor,'" McCormick public relations chief Laurie Harrsen told me over the phone.

It took weeks to tear down the spice-maker's handsome, sturdy Inner Harbor plant back in 1989. (It was replaced with a parking lot, natch.) Each wrecking-ball blast issued up clouds of spicy dust, perfuming the whole operation--an aromatic coda for an era that began with spice-laden clipper ships tacking up the Chesapeake from far-flung ports of call.

With my nose still dancing to the delights of nutmeg and allspice, I thought it might be an appropriate time to visit the olfactory dark side again. So I drove to Curtis Bay for a look-sniff at the Valley Proteins rendering plant. Back in 1995, City Paper ran an exposé on the vile but necessary work Valley Proteins performs--boiling down used cooking grease and dead animals into usable byproducts such as animal feed, paint, car wax, and rubber. I stashed my car on Pennington Avenue and walked toward the plant, passing tanker trucks labeled sewage only and, cryptically, inedible technical animal fat. An inauspicious entrance, to be sure. Oh, and it didn't smell sweet--but then industrial Curtis Bay is never going be confused with the White House Rose Garden.

About 100 yards away, I saw a Valley worker hosing down the pavement near the squat cement plant. I strode on, hoping to speak with the hose wielder, until I was broadsided by an odor so fetid, so foul, so gut-tightening that I spun on my heels and beat it back to my car. I can't tell you what it smelled like. I just can't. I hadn't received a nose-full like that since high school, when on a dare, I stuck my head inside the trash bin serving the seafood restaurant where I bused tables.

That boiling down dead animals should be a highly malodorous affair came as little surprise. More curious is the vinegary smell one occasionally encounters around the Cold Spring Lane exit of the Jones Falls Expressway. Over the years I'd heard all kinds of explanations for this roadside sourness: paint factory, glue factory, seepage from a nearby landfill. After investigating for myself, I can now say with certainty that the vinegary smell along this stretch is, in fact, vinegar. Burns Phips Foods Inc. operates a vinegar plant at the end of Brand Avenue just west of the JFX, but the people there don't seem to care for drop-in guests. (The plant's gated entrance sports enough video-surveillance cameras, razor wire, and no trespassing signs to cover the Kennedy compound.) I called up the place, and an employee (who requested anonymity) told me Burns makes 48,000 gallons of vinegar a day--some 15 million gallons a year. The output was described as "white distilled vinegar," which the company sells to other manufacturers for use in "salad dressings, barbecue sauces, pickles, you name it." But, no, the multistory gray metal tank that looms over the highway here does not hold vinegar. "That's a popular myth," my source said. The big tank holds natural gas--and if you smell it, we're in trouble."

The vinegar works includes a handsome, circa-1830s stone building that saw duty as a water-powered flour, saw, and cotton mill in the 19th century. Later, it housed the Melvale Rye distillery, which cranked out barrels of Baltimore's once-famous, now-fading, potent potable, rye whiskey (while undoubtedly cranking out unique smells of its own). When Prohibition turned the art of whiskey making into a crime, the plant switched to vinegar.

I was told Burns strives to keep escaping fumes to a minimum, and that it's only on stagnant, humid days when the work's sundry atmospheric emissions get trapped in the Jones Falls Valley and become detectable to passing motorists. Nose-holding neighbors have been known to call the plant complaining of a sour smell, but the Burns staffer told me they're not whiffing white distilled vinegar but the effluvia of a large, city-run mulch pile in the area.

Speaking of malodorous mulch piles, will anyone else admit to reading Brat Pack novelist Jay McInerney Big '80s effort Bright Lights, Big City. (OK, a clunky transition, but bear with me.) Recall how the book concludes with its cocaine-addled protagonist experiencing a rejuvenating epiphany while inhaling bakery fumes after yet another night squandered among the bright lights? On the corner of Fleet and Bond streets in Fells Point, Baltimoreans can seek olfactory redemption of their own. Here, on the penumbra of Fells Point, H&S Bakery has a plant. It always smells sweet and yeasty here--a sort of errant aromatherapy that helps ease the frustration of trying to park in the Point.

I rang up H&S and spoke to baker Nick Tsakalos, casually asking him what kind of bread the company makes. I was treated to a Gump-esque recitation: "Let's see, we make rye bread, Italian bread, pan bread, raisin bread, sesame bread, cinnamon bread, maple-syrup bread, onion-rye bread . . ."

In total, some 200 varieties of bread are baked there--2 million pounds a week. The commercial ovens roar 24/seven and can kick out 90 loaves a minute.

Does Tsakalos ever grow weary of the heady aroma? "You never get tired of smelling good bread," he replies. "You do have to watch how much of it you eat."

So what else stinks around here? Many things, I'm sure. Friends and co-workers sent me out on nose-to-the-ground treks to all corners of city seeking odd smells. But as I've learned, atmospherics and timing have a lot to do with whether a certain area smells or not. A lot of folks told me the harbor itself reeks, but the last time I covered the waterfront by boat, whatever odors the gray-green waters were giving off were masked by South Baltimore's twin gifts to the city: the molasses-y discharges from the Domino Sugar plant and the rich aroma of coffee from the Pfefferkorn roastery. There are seasonal smells as well, such as the distinct, uh, masculine aroma that cloaks the city each summer when the weedy Ailanthus altissima trees are in bloom. (They're also referred to as "ghetto palms" and, more tellingly, "cum trees.")

The most common comeback to my query--"What stinks?"--"The alley behind my house." A true enough response, to be sure. When the high-humidity doldrums of high summer descend on Baltimore, the alley behind everyone's house becomes redolent of a dead rat wrapped in a piss-soaked gym sock.

Now just imagine that combined with 90,000 cesspools.

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