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The Smell of Success 

For post-industrial Pittsburgh, change is in the air

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As every Pittsburgher now knows, the Indonesian corpse flower blooms only for a few days — and it reeks like rotting flesh during that time. When such a flower bloomed at Phipps Conservatory last month, thousands of locals turned out to see it, and smell it, for themselves. Even New York papers took notice, giving Pittsburgh the kind of national "earned media" tourism officials willingly furnish real corpses for. 

Corpse flowers, after all, bloom just once a decade. And a lot can change in 10 years. Just look at how Pittsburgh responded the last time a local scent got national attention.

Almost 10 years ago to the day — on Oct. 30, 2003 — the comic strip "Get Fuzzy" spawned the kind of local outrage normally reserved for away-team desecrations of the Terrible Towel. In that day's installment, the protagonist's talking housecat visits a travel agency to ask about vacations "based primarily on smell." The punchline: A travel agent hands over a brochure from Pittsburgh.

Though "Get Fuzzy" didn't appear locally back then, nearly 400 Pittsburgh loyalists contacted strip creator Darby Conley, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported: "I've never gotten death threats before," Conley told the paper.

But we may owe Conley an apology: There's apparently a market for stench-based tourism here after all. 

A reported 12,000 people showed up at Phipps while its corpse flower was in bloom. Some stood in line for hours, hoping to catch a whiff. 

If only we'd known. If only we'd realized that people would pay admission to smell something terrible. We might have handled the city's vaunted Renaissance much differently.

Today, "Washington's Landing" is a tony mixed-use housing and office development along the Allegheny River. But back when it was known as Herr's Island, it housed a cattle yard, slaughterhouse and rendering plant. Together, reported the Pittsburgh Press in 1974, "they produce the famous ‘Herr's Stink.' ... The smell is so bad, say workmen on the 31st Street Bridge over the island, that ‘you can't even drink your coffee when the wind blows the wrong way.'" 

Then-mayor Tom Murphy redeveloped the island in the mid-1990s, thereby depriving Pittsburgh of a chance to capitalize on stench tourism year-round. But he almost made up for it by backing a plan to refurbish the former LTV coke works in Hazelwood. 

That site, too, could have been a mecca for odor connoisseurs. According to a 1989 LTV "Odor Study" (recently posted online by local blogger Chris Briem), residents identified such scents as coal tar, burnt mothballs and the evocative "general coke-plant odor."  But Pittsburgh's olfactory sense was perhaps less sophisticated than it is today, and Murphy's plan failed in the face of resident opposition. Now the LTV site is slated for yet another mixed-use development, with office space and housing and terrific river views. But not, so far as I can tell, a single skunk-cabbage patch to attract olfactory thrill-seekers.

Back in the old days, of course, you hardly had to step off the porch to smell something rotten. In the early 1900s, the famous Pittsburgh Survey reported, tens of thousands of households lacked sewer access: "Privy vaults" were often "seen in Pittsburgh full to the brim and overflowing with liquid filth. Some drained down the side of a hill ... into a neighbor's back yard." Saw Mill Run alone was supposed to drain the sewage of some 35,000 residents, but "[a]s a matter of fact excreta were found exposed on the ground at the edge of the run." 

Other observers decried the contrast between such squalor and the affluence found in the East End. "Rich men's homes and poor men's hovels! What an anomaly we have here!" protested reformer Abraham Oseroff as he documented the unsanitary conditions he found between Downtown and the prosperous East End. 

Oseroff wasn't the only one who failed to realize what a gold mine Pittsburgh really had. By the mid-1900s, civic leaders were busily scrubbing the city's air and water. Even today, local officials talk about our overstressed sewers — which dump raw sewage into the rivers during heavy rains — as if they were problems to fixed, rather than amenities to cash in on.

But then when the mills and rendering plants were running, who could have known that someday a bad smell would be not just a memory here but a novelty — something to seek out? Who could have seen how far we have come? 

A century ago, Pittsburghers would pay any price to avoid foul stenches. A decade ago, we threatened anyone who joked about finding them here. But today, thousands of us will pay a $15 admission to seek them out. And it makes you wonder: In a city where artisanal olive oils and ice cubes make up a greater and greater share of local commerce, is a bad smell becoming the ultimate luxury good?

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