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The Old Factory System: San Francisco Fills the Air with Miasmas of Past, Present, and Future 

Wednesday, Feb 26 2014

You are able to read these words thanks to four different sorts of cells within your eyes called "receptors," which convert light into electrochemical impulses. You are able to feel the paper, the keyboard, the touchpad, the dude rubbing up against you on the bus thanks to, literally, just a handful of receptors.

The smell of the newsprint, your bus, that dude: These are detectable via more than 1,000 different types of receptors. The primacy of your sense of smell is so easily overlooked — as demonstrated by terms like "overlooked." With thousands upon thousands of smell receptors, you can discern a breathtaking number of odors.

In San Francisco, this is a mixed blessing.

Over the years, ours is a city that has been cleansed, if not cleaned. The open-air bazaars and draught horses of yesteryear have largely given way to sleek glass structures and herds of hybrids; the notion of a jackass on the road means something different now than it did a century ago.

So, it's a bit of a surprise that the smelliest place in all San Francisco is within one of those translucent, antiseptic buildings. The Mission Street digs of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) flaunts the high ceilings, exposed girders, and cold stone floors you'd expect in a chic SoMa showcase of modern architectural sensibilities. The odors of offices past — musty books, well-trodden carpets, antisocial people who eat tinned fish at their desks — are not to be found here.

Instead, until the end of next month, the structure's foyer will take on the odeur de Paris, circa 1738 ("foul breath, human body stink & overflowing gutters").

But this is, ostensibly, a good thing. And people will come and stick their noses — with all those thousand-plus receptors — into it.

Eighteen (very tightly) capped receptacles resembling oversize martini glasses compose a most unusual exhibit: "Urban Olfactory," an exploration of the scents of far-off places and long-forgotten times. In addition to pre-revolutionary — and pre-plumbing — Paris, visitors can also take a whiff of modern-day "Rotterdam" ("River water, patchouli, hashish, tangerine, algae, fur, and dog"). To be perfectly honest, at least in San Francisco, 18th-century Paris and 21st-century Rotterdam smell about the same.

There's more patchouli in Rotterdam, though.

The odors on display form a continuum with "jasmine" on one end and "electrical fire" on the other, and stop at odd points in-between, with varying degrees of success. One of the most true-to-life scents is "The Smell of Manure in the French Countryside," which aims to "play with notions of nostalgia and revulsion." This it does. It also faithfully replicates the odor of bovine excrement within a vessel held mere inches from one's nose. This, again, is a mixed blessing.

More satisfying is a scent meant to evoke the northern French city of Lille. Close your eyes and you can envision the ancient cobblestones, slick underfoot after a winter's rainstorm. It's a startlingly poignant and evocative experience; open your eyes and you'll find yourself a bit taken aback to still be in San Francisco, at least corporeally, your face half-buried in a big martini glass.

The odors on display harking from our fair city are plenty evocative, but far less poignant. The exhibit was curated by California College of the Arts architectural history professors David Gissen and Irene Cheng, and four vessels are meant to capture the historical smells of that school's Potrero neighborhood: salt air (nice); stables (see: "The Smell of Manure in the French Countryside"); coal soot (acrid, unbearable); and pollution (even worse).

The installation prompts so many questions. But most obvious is the one Cheng never fails to ask her students: What is the scent of San Francisco?

The answer to that question brings to mind Yogi Berra's purported response when a teammate asked what time it was: "You mean now?"

A waterfront steeped in the odors of spices, fruits, nuts, and fish unloaded onto the wharfside smelled different than the realm powered by today's soup-in-a-breadbowl-based economy. The searing of a cable car's wooden brake shoes may be this city's signature smell (along with pot smoke). But it would have permeated San Francisco when there were dozens of lines instead of the mere three that remain. It also would have resonated differently with city residents of that time; rather than evoking nostalgia in a rapidly changing and increasingly rootless city, the whiff of toasted wood would simply have been a quotidian transit experience. Today, San Franciscans may feel at home when breathing in the (non-urine, non-B.O.) essence of Muni: diesel smoke, stale subterranean air, the summer-storm odor of a sparking overhead wire.

This, too, conjures up "notions of nostalgia and revulsion."

As the city changes, so does its scent. In fact, points out Cheng, the former is often driven by the latter. Putrid odors spurred the societal changes that shaped today's major American cities: urban beautification, increased sanitation, a near-cessation of public smoking. San Francisco's vast green spaces hail from an era in which city residents believed bacterial diseases were actually caused by "miasmas" — clouds of noxious, invisible gases. Maybe it's stretching things a bit, but if 19th-century San Francisco hadn't smelled so much like 18th-century France, we might not have Golden Gate Park.

After you've sniffed and re-sniffed the ersatz odors on display within SPUR headquarters, the scents of our living, breathing city grow irresistible. You stumble outside and the cool, foggy air fills your lungs. Your throat burns from a couple of waiters' cigarette break, then wins a reprieve via a steaming cup of coffee toted by a man hammering out some deal on a Bluetooth.

The lavender scent of a lotion or potion wafts off the hands of the young lady at the ATM; the homeless woman squatting nearby enjoys a pungent chocolate bar. Counter-intuitively, the strongest smells emanating from the flower stand are not the blossoms but the freshly cut stems floating in medicinally scented buckets of iodine-colored water.

And, finally, a see-sawing, articulated 38 Geary bus rumbles by, overpowering all 1,000-plus receptors with a belch of caustic black smoke. It's not a pleasant smell, but it is a familiar one. And, at times, that's all one could hope for.

For today's San Franciscans, it provides something in short supply: a sense of where you are.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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