The Royal Smelly City

A view of downtown New Westminster. Photo: Briana Tomkinson
A view of downtown New Westminster. Photo: Briana Tomkinson

Cities have their own vernacular. Some boast unique architecture, a common sense of style and still others, a mode of transportation favoured by the citizens. Certain cities, however have their own scent or combination of scents – both good and bad.

From the pungent aroma of spices in the souks of Marrakesh; the salty air of West Coast cities; the crisp buttery smell of the croissants in Paris to the roasted smell of a local cafe in Portland these smells serve as landmarks and add to our sensory experience of a neighbourhood or city. So close your eyes and picture yourself at 6th and 6th – any odours standing out? Now how about in the middle of Queen’s Park – inhale deeply. Down by the Quay – is that a hint of tugboat diesel? Tell me, what does this city smell like?

That is the question I’ve been asking myself after coming across a unique children’s book called New York, PHEW York. Written by Amber Jones, a hotel concierge working in Times Square, the book is a scratch-n-sniff guide of New York featuring some of the pleasant and not so pleasant smells unique to the city. From pizza, hot dogs, churros and other such tasty delights, to the ever-present stench of garbage and sewer steam common across the five boroughs.

While New West doesn’t have the density of life present in New York City, it does certainly have its own aromas – some long-standing others newly emerging. Living in the downtown area of New West, the smell of crispy fried batter of a certain fish and chip shop comes to mind, as does the earthiness of the river along the quay. Another scent that stands out is the dampness of the leaves and trees crackling beneath my feet on early morning runs through Queen’s park. And with the River Market hitting its stride, new fragrances seem to be emerging all the time. The sour yeast smell of freshly baked bread and smoky BBQ being two standouts in my eyes – I mean nose.

Be it New York City, Vancouver or New West, each of these urban environments has its own sensory fingerprint. And while New York’s imprint might be made up of skyscrapers, honking horns and the smell of churros, New West has its own unique sensory profile and it includes more than just paper pulp. What does your New West smell like?

12 Replies to “The Royal Smelly City”

  1. Good question. These days, it mostly smells of rain and riverfront, not quite seashore and not quite river either.

  2. now that you mention it (great idea for an article and discussion by the way) every few weeks there is a strong smell of… unpleasantness that wafts up the hill from the river in our neighbourhood. I have never smelled it uptown or downtown, only in the Connaught and West End areas.

    Other smells, cherry blossoms. St. Patrick and 3rd Street is one of the best spots for this.

    1. Finally someone else that recognizes that something stinks and it's not pleasant! Many people not only in New West but all the municipalities surrounding the lower Fraser River are getting overwhelmed with a smell of rotten… well rotten something. I think people have come to accept this odor as just the Fraser River or global warming or something!? It's especially pungent in the warm months and the culprit is Fraser Richmond Soil & Fibre Ltd. also known as the Lower Mainland`s composting facility.

      Late in the evenings the facility churns the heaps releasing the methane gas and that odor that smells as though you've kept your garbage in the house for one too many days. The smell travels up and down the Fraser and blankets Ladner, Marpole, South Burnaby, and New Westminster, and some nights even further. As far as I know, calls have been made to Mayor Corrigan in Burnaby and they've been told that measures have been implemented to reduce the smell, and that they don't churn the piles in the evenings anymore, but this past summer, every few nights the smell would come back.

      Someone needs to inform the residences of these communities, that this smell is not normal and that Fraser Richmond Soil & Fibre Ltd needs to do something to stem the stink!!

        1. I know, most people don`t know and if you try and tell them what it is, they don`t believe you or they`ll try to say that it`s just this smell or that smell, because of this or that. Anyway, you won`t smell it over the winter months, but keep that sniffer ready for the hot weather. The stench will be back.

  3. I lived on Alberta Street in Sapperton near Labatts for a few years and believe me New Westminster smelled like Beer every day of the year.

  4. Great post. This time of year, in the Canada Games Pool area on the residential streets, you can smell lots of smoke from chimneys in the evenings (lots of Seniors). It smells like camping.
    Also, in Queensboro around dinner time, you smell plenty of Indian spices.

  5. I used to work near Still Creek in Burnaby and every day we would smell the most horrific stink and it took me years to realize it was the smell of chocolate being made. That burny cocao bean smell. Gag. I am so glad to never smell that again. Over by Hume it smells like rotting leaves (which I don't mind too much) and skunk (which I would be happy to take a pass on). In our yard the predominant smell is the chickens (which smell like barn and hay, which is a rather pleasant smell) and currently, soil. All very nice earthy smells. I'm surprised it doesn't smell more like exhaust given the traffic that zooms by. Ooh, and my other favourite smell has just ended – the smell of cooked sugar from the katsura tree as it loses its leaves. I love that smell.

  6. There is a very strong smell by City Hall which reeks of a cover-up. Ha ha! Whenever I stop at Sixth and Royal, if my window is down (not lately, obviously) I always smell sulfur… or is it phosphor… basically the smell of matches. I think the most likely source is the Royal Towers. What goes on in there? Who knows.

    One day, I was in City Hall and I asked two clerks separately about the smell. Both denied knowing what I was talking about. It could be that they never walk to work, but you'd think someone would have mentioned it. Am I the only one who smells this? My wife would be grateful if someone could explain this mystery odour so I'll finally shut up about it.

  7. I remember the smell of the brewery in Sapperton. Didn't always like the smell, but it did give a sense of place, and an experience that you got nowhere else.

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