The Sweet (and Not So Sweet) Smell of a Gentrifying New York

The McKibben Bogart candle from OAK.
The McKibben Bogart candle from OAK.

Though New York has made great olfactory strides since the days of carriage horses and open sewers, the city is not known for its alluring scents, particularly in the summer months, when the faint odor of garbage blends with high notes of dog urine and an ever-present undertone of fried food and car exhaust. But as New York has increasingly become a luxury experience—though stubborn proof that New Yorkers actually live, breathe and do smelly things here persists—parfumiers and candle-makers have been unable to resist naming scents after hip neighborhoods, reality be damned.

Indeed, though unpleasant odors number among the most persistent remainders of gritty old New York—which can, at times, like Penn Station, be a somewhat comforting reminder that Bloomberg’s tyranny of pleasant blandness has not quite completely conquered the city—parfumiers have persisted in imagining sweeter-scented alternate realities.

The newest abomination, Gothamist reportsis a candle redolent of none other than Bushwick—”McKibben + Bogart”—manufactured by posh candlemaker OAK and retailing for $81.

Worse yet, this one makes claims to olfactory authenticity rather than the more vague impressionistic descriptions favored by Noho-based parfumier Bond No. 9, whose Chinatown scent captures “the emerging superpower energy with the avant-garde cachet of downtown New York.” By contrast, OAK’s Bushwick scent is “inspired by the Brooklyn neighborhood in the early 2000’s: wood, oil, paint thinner, incense, booze, dust, ICR vs. Deth Killers of Bushwick, and artist lofts.” (For those in need of some translation here, Deth Killers of Bushwick is a clothing manufacturer favored, apparently, by trustafarian riders of the L train; one can currently acquire their “Toke Gold” pullover hoodie for the low, low price of $165.)

Not having access to one of the candles, this description may well be accurate—”scent highlights” include “terpenic notes of drying oil paint on canvases blended with incense, dry cedarwood chips, and dark guaiac wood oil”—though it’s hard to imagine anyone paying $81 to replicate the smell of a dank communal loft heavy with the odorous residue of incense and paint-thinner. (Dust, really?)

The wealthy have shown a great enthusiasm for slumming it. But bad smells would truly be a new frontier. And though many of us have fond memories of questionable smells, linked as they are to specific times and places, it is hard to imagine anyone gravitating toward pungently bad odors unmoored from memory.

After all, it is possible to feel great affection for a bad smell—this reporter will always love the fetid, slightly chemical reek of the Chicago River—but a bad smell that evokes no memories?

Of course, there is little chance that “McKibben + Bogart” smells like anything other than some highly denatured version of the genuine article—a Bohemian fantasy, in the model of so many artisanal products of gentrification, which aim to appropriate a neighborhood’s charms while simultaneously laying waste to them.

According to its website, Oak Candles are “designed to evoke a moment and place in time in New York’s history.” (The Bleecker and MacDougal candle claims to smell like wet wool, wet leather, denim, smoke, marijuana, Chanel No. 5, lipstick and wood.)

But rather than creating an olfactory fantasy based on a life not lived, wouldn’t it be better to shape one of a place as yet unmade, in the mode of Bond No. 9, whose Hudson Yards scent, which DNAInfo earlier pointed out, is meant to call up a neighborhood that is, at present, “a massive construction site” by evoking “spring and new beginning” with a “luminous melange” of “wet petals of lily of the valley, pink pepper oil, peony buds, lychee and orange flower absolute.”

After all, when catering to the new New York, the kind that can pay $200 for a 50 ml bottle of scent, perhaps it is better, or at least less patronizing, to look to the future rather than stealing from the past.

The Sweet (and Not So Sweet) Smell of a Gentrifying New York