‘Ooooh that smell. Can’t you smell that smell?’By
If any frequently complaint about the New York City subways holds water, it is the one about the smells. Throughout the city, the subways often smell really bad, and it has become a part of the city’s collective identity. Maybe it shouldn’t be though.
My recent tale of olfactory woe in the subway came last week when I traveled down to the West Village to meet a friend of mine for dinner. I exited the West 4th St. station via the staircase on the downtown-bound platform. That exit is a lonely one. It features a pair of iron maiden turnstiles, no personnel presence even in the good times and a dark staircase that leads to Waverly Place. Back in 2007, the sign at the entrance told straphangers that the F, F and orange Q trains stopped there. It is a lonely, sad station.
Last week, it also had the distinction of smelling strongly like human excrement. As I passed through the turnstile, a strong odor slammed me in the face, and I and my fellow passengers hurried to find some fresh air. With standing water, discarded coffee cups and weeks’ old newspaper littering the floor, it was tough to say when that station had been cleaned. It wasn’t particularly recent.
Were this an isolated incident, I would probably be willing to overlook it, but it’s not. Throughout the city, various stations — some more isolated that others — carry strange smells. Dirty water snakes along tracks, sewage drips down station walls, garbage piles up and odors emanate. Try waiting for a train at the 2nd Ave. stop along the F for more than a few minutes; it’s not a fun experience.
A few years ago, when the MTA had money to clean stations, it wasn’t any better. Gawker published a now-defunct map of subway smells, and straphangers from all over pinpointed the various locations that smelled bad. Maybe it’s the sheer number of homeless people who live in the system; maybe its the groundwater that seeps through shoddily engineered or 80-year-old walls; maybe it’s the blatant disregard for cleanliness that riders have. It’s probably a combination of everything, and as the MTA faces a situation in which discretionary funds are scarce, cleanliness will suffer.
Smells, particularly those in exits and staircases and fare control areas, set the stage for the rest of the system. If someone entering the system encounters the odor of human waste, they will have little incentive to take good care of their portion of the subway. They won’t think twice about adding to the smell or littering. It’s a vicious vicious cycle.
Of course, it all comes back to money: The MTA doesn’t have enough money to inspect and clean the entrances even at stations as popular and centrally located as West 4th. How can they hope to reach little used stations tucked away in the far corners of the five boroughs? Nassau Ave. on the G train smelled nearly as bad this past Saturday.
So we suffer the smells. We plug our noises; we stop breathing; we hurry out of stations. What choice do we have? It’s the price we pay and another sign of a system sliding into disrepair.