‘Ooooh that smell. Can’t you smell that smell?’

By · Published in 2011

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.

16 Responses to “‘Ooooh that smell. Can’t you smell that smell?’”

  1. David says:

    For some strange reason, the MTA has apparently lost the formula to soap and water. Other places used by thousands of people get regular cleanings but we are elated to see the yearly track trash removal and power washing of platforms. Golly it’s nice for a few weeks after that.
    Perhaps there is a detergent shortage here since I’ve noticed mostly really tidy subway stations in many other cities all over. We’re just different.

    • skunky says:

      I don’t get this either. They’ve got Doe Fund guys working for every BID in town picking up trash. But we can’t get a couple of guys/gals with a bucket, a scrub brush, and some ammonia to scrub down a platform once a week? Couldn’t we organize some volunteer corps or have it funded by local businesses who don’t want their subway entrance smelling like poo? This seems like a problem that can be solved with minimal cost per station (multipled by the hundreds of stations of course).

      • Jehiah says:

        I’ve long wondered if it would be possible for a “volunteer corps” of some sort to help out with some things like this. I really hope someone tries to make that happen.

    • Alex C says:

      Problem is water and sewage leaks because of ages old infrastructure, homeless using the system as a bathroom, and of course the portion of the ridership that uses the system as a garbage dump. Some of the issues are beyond the MTA’s control. I do agree though that they need to get a grip on those they can. The east end of the southbound BDFM platform at Broadway Lafayette is a sewage dump. Hopefully they clean that up when they finish the work there at least.

      • Andrew says:

        Also, most other systems shut down at night. That chases the homeless out and gives employees time to clean the stations without interference from the public.

        It also seems to be an accepted fact that the subway system is a de facto homeless shelter. Not sure how to change that without incurring the wrath of the homeless defenders.

  2. Union Street R Station says:

    I’ve long thought about organizing a citizens’ volunteer effort to maintain my local subway station. It doesn’t seems like it would take all that much to keep the station clean.

    I’d pull together a group of people who would give our local subway station a thorough cleaning a couple of times a week. We’d also keep an eye on signage and safety to the degree that we could.

    Perhaps we’d fold the effort into a local civic group like the Park Slope Civic Council, to give it a little more institutional continuity and heft.

    We’d clean our local subway station mainly because we care about our neighborhood, our city and our transit system and we hate to see New York City’s most prized assets being neglected. But if the participants of such an effort received free, unlimited Metrocards, it would really help and I think could be made to work.

    It’s sad that it’s come to this but it’s clear that our local politicians, the Transit Workers Union and the MTA clearly don’t care enough to do what’s necessary to maintain our transit system properly.

  3. Clarke says:

    One time this summer, I was in the Atlantic Ave complex and it smelled really, really good. It was so surprising that I probably talked about it for a week straight afterward. Haven’t encountered the pleasant smell again, but it was quite a moment.

  4. Jerrold says:

    But it’s true that we can’t really put the blame on the MTA when some disgusting bum, probably drunk or on drugs, uses a subway entrance to take a crap.

  5. John-2 says:

    The transients pretty much figure out where the rarely-used exits/iron maiden entrances are in the system, and those also are the ones the MTA has a habit of paying little attention to. That’s not excusing them for not cleaning up the mess, but their attitude seems to be they can live with a smell there longer, because fewer people will complain (though if the area around Houston-Second Ave. continues to gentrify, I’ll be interested to see if they’re finally forced to do something about the smell at the east end of the station that’s been there since about the Beame Administration).

  6. Eric says:

    Yeah um Nassau Ave smelled really bad yesterday. But in Greenpoint I usually chalk such things up to the Newtown Creek plant.


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