Why Does New York City Smell So Bad? – Cheddar Explains

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“I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on a corner eating it. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume”. That’s Joan Didion describing the beginning of her love affair with New York. Here’s E.B. White taking a walk on a summer night through the Lower East Side. I head east along Rivington. All is cheerful and filthy and crowded. It is folksy here with the smell of warm flesh and squashed fruit and fly bitten filth in the gutter and cooking. Notice the old factory details? New York City is and always has been a smelly city. Today, Google is full of questions like, “Why does New York City smells so bad, Why does New York City smell like pee?” Well, there are 27,000 people per square mile in New York City. These individuals sweat, cook and of course produce trash and the scent that really hits the hardest on a hot August afternoon in the city is the smell of roasting garbage. New York City’s residential trash, adds up to about 7,000 tons a day. Walk down any residential street on trash pickup day and you have to thread your way among giant garbage bergs, mounds of residential waste piled along the curb spilling over onto the sidewalk. That helps answer the questions about the smell, but this urban wasteland begs another question. “Why does New York City pile its garbage on the sidewalk?” New Yorkers put their trash out on the street and sidewalks because there aren’t alleyways where it can be stored out of the way in big bins. So why doesn’t New York City have alleys? The answer to that has to do with how the city’s grid was drawn. It is also like so many other New York City Stories about real estate. The Big Apple started out as a Dutch trading post on the very southern tip of the island. It was a jumble of haphazard meandering streets. Landowners were left to their own devices to build streets where it suited them. There was no formal city planning. There also wasn’t yet any formal plan for sanitation and let the record show people from other cities have been dogging New York for being trashy since it’s inception. In 1697, a doctor from Boston wrote of Manhattan, “Their streets are nasty and unregarded.” By this point, just after the Revolutionary War, the city was experiencing a huge population boom and was trying to organize itself. They’d created a health commission, hired some street sweepers and started naming and numbering the 90 or so existing streets. As the population increased and the economy started to take off, city leaders began to realize there was a profit to be made. The problem? Compared even with Paris and London, randomly built New York with it’s narrow, crooked streets and few and shabby public buildings was the ridicule of strangers and all persons of taste. The state legislature appointed three men as commissioners and gave them exclusive power to lay out streets roads and public squares of such width, extent and direction as to them shall seem most conducive to public good. The commissioners were Gouverneur Morris, a Founding Father, John Rutherfurd, a former US senator and the New York State surveyor general, Simeon De Witt. The only instructions they were given were that the avenues should be at least 60 feet wide and that other streets should be at least 50 feet wide. They were given four years to survey the 13 mile, 11,000 acre island and they weren’t required to give any progress reports in the interim. We do know based on their letters that by November of 1810, with only four months until their report was due, the commissioners still had not settled on a plan and yet in 1811 they presented what would become the Manhattan grid you see today. In a way, it’s funny that the grid has been so lauded as the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization and the best manifestation of American pragmatism in the creation of urban form. Because, the 1811 commissioners plan seems to have been largely borrowed from an earlier grid and that earlier grid wasn’t meant to be a master city plan. It was drawn to help New York City make money. In the 1790’s after the Revolutionary War, the growing city needed revenue. So it’s leaders decided to sell off the land it owned. Thirteen hundred acres in central Manhattan, about nine percent of the total area of the island. In 1794, the city hired surveyor Casimir Goerck to divide the common lands into parcels that could be auctioned off. Goerck was instructed to create five acre plots and to make sure each plot had road access. He divided the common lands into 212 lots. Each lot was five acres and had street access on at least two sides. According to Gerard Koeppel, the historian who wrote the book on the Development of Manhattan’s Grid, Goerck’s map is the genesis of the 1811 grid and the city’s own Landmarks Preservation Commission said in a report that commissioners plan, borrowed heavily from Goerck’s earlier surveys and essentially expanded his scheme beyond the common lands to encompass the entire island. Now let’s get back to alleys, Goerck didn’t include alleys in his plan because he wasn’t planning a city. He was dividing up a large tract of land so that it could be sold to private owners. The Commissioners Plan of 1811 the one that became the Manhattan grid we have today, didn’t include alleys because well, the commissioners hastily copied that common lands map of 1794 or as the curator of New York City’s Tenement Museum once wrote, “Above all, the commissioners sought to level Manhattan’s natural landscape and bring every inch of the city into productive use by facilitating the sale and distribution of land through a systemic standardization.” Or as the urban planning scholar Peter Marcuse puts it, “The commissioners grid is a plane of real estate development instead of a textured urban form and is one of the worst city plans of any major city in the developed countries of the world.” Today, the New York Department of Sanitation operates a fleet of 2500 trucks and performs a truly impressive feat in keeping the city from drowning in trash. There are even proposals floating around to take a page from Barcelona’s playbook with communal dumpsters on each block or Sweden’s with pneumatic tubes and underground storage. Next thing you get a whiff of old hot gar-barge, you can think those were crass donating 1800’s commissioners. [MUSIC] Thanks for watching. Hit the comments to talk all things grids and garbage. If you liked this video, hit subscribe and hit the bell icon so you’re notified next time Cheddar puts out a new video. Thanks again and we’ll see you next time.

100 comments

  1. Why do guys have dick cheese? So many questions.

    Anyway surely people can use compost bins for food and the city can water blast the place regularly.

  2. Dumb answers with stupid innuendos. A pragmatic response has never entered the mind of cheddar. This insults the intelligence of any civil planner.

  3. If a city smells bad, the reason is always obvious and simple. The inhabitants are irresponsible or personally filthy or both.

  4. I'm surprised NYC trash just stays directly on the sidewalk, basically on the floor, I've never saw that in any city of Western Europe, only in developing countries

  5. Wow that's fucking gross, loose trash bags leaking garbage juice all over the city, fuck me… at least give them portable bins per home or something =

  6. what alley ways. in civilized citys you just got an extra room for your trashbins. every new house is required to have such room, every old house (and in my city a few houses are older than the americas) have a room that can be adapted.
    but at least you got standardized bins which closes and do not release smell.

    it just seems like a common problem, and we do have this problem here too: "we have always done it that way, so thats the way we do it!"

  7. I just moved back from NYC after living there for 5 years. And I miss the smell of pizza, piss, and garbage.

    That’s what makes it Manhattan! ❤️

  8. Tbh Barcelona kinda smells of sewers so I wouldn't necessarily take a page from their book to combat a smell problem. Still an undeniably beautiful city though.

  9. Um… what? Since when do you need alleyways to have garbage containers? You could have an identatation (or a stretch that occupies one or two parking lots) in the sidewalk for the containers, maybe with some bushes?
    Is this unheard of in the US?
    It would be a much cheaper alternative to the tubes for example (although I find that one quite awesome).

  10. Manhattan doesn't have alleys. Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx has plenty of them. Plus a lot more room. Even with the smell, NYC does not have a real homeless section such as skidrow.

  11. You know what smells really bad? A hog farm.

    You know what you don't notice the next day? A hog farm. Like the Febreze ad says, "you go nose-blind."

  12. At 2:04, you quote a doctor from Boston writing in "1697"; at 2:10, you follow that with "By this point, just after the Revolutionary War". Was that quote supposed to be from 1796 instead, or maybe 1797?

  13. I love New York! I wouldn't want to live anywhere else in the country. But yeah, I guess you have to live here for a long time to really "get it."

  14. Ok maybe I won’t be able to enjoy my first nyc visit. Smelling bad has become my worst pet peeve I can’t deal with it

  15. Well have you guys tried banning straws????That’s what they did in San Francisco instead of addressing the pooping in the street and druggies throwing needles their trash and smell problems

  16. visited NYC three days ago and it stank. I talked about it a bunch i guess google overheard me enough to puch this video into my stream…. lol gotta love it

  17. I knew it! I ve always known New York stinks since I was a little kid and I first saw how dirty and ugly looks this shithole in movies and on TV. I bet people there smell bad too!

  18. Communal bins for the win! Greetings from Spain. There is nowhere alley's in Spain and we do not pile up our trash on street

  19. I love how New York City is. I’m a proud New Yorker 🥰❤️. I prefer NYC over any other state in the USA to live!!!!!!! NYC is perfect for me how it is!!!!!!!!

  20. Cheddar used to make good videos. This one needs an editor. Why the city smells so bad has to do with its layout. The history of the city’s layout does not have to do with why the city smells so bad. Like, fundamentally, this video needs rewritten or the title needs changed or more research needs done. It’s just a mess. It needs—an editor.

  21. In Beijing, you can find two pairs of public restrooms in less than 40 meters, while in NYC, no more than 40 public restrooms exists in the entire city (note that the restrooms in airports, in bus terminals and in restaurants are not public but a part of the service you bought, albeit many of them just let anyone in). Not every public restroom in Beijing is well maintained and clean enough, but if you take a look at the top 10% restrooms in Beijing, you still get a statistics that is overtaking any US cities in both quality and quantity (density, availability, per capita share, etc.). I have found stinky marijuana smell and stinky urine smell all over 34 street many times, not to mention garbage smell.

    So it is not at all surprising the NYC should be smelly. It would be surprising if it is not.

  22. I’ve lived in NYC all my life, and other than Chinatown, I don’t think it smells any different than any other major city in the US

  23. The trash situation in NY is just ridiculous They should be able to come up with something so there aren't massive amounts of garbage taking over the sidewalks everywhere several days a week. Yeah, alleyways are not going to happen but maybe some sort of mini-dumpsters like some cities in Europe use. Also, I like how the video went into the half-assed property-owner oriented urban design of NYC. It wasn't designed with any thought given to community, having multiple centers, the experience as a pedestrian, etc. just a boring ass grid.

  24. NYC or specifically Manhattan (since that what this is actually talking about) smells bad yes, but it's better than it was 30-40 years ago. Also there are alley ways in the other 4 boroughs that do not get mentioned here. Manhattan is the smallest land wise county in the US (since each borough is a county). Manhattan needs every square inch of land it has. The other 4 boroughs have a little more space and are somewhat more residential resulting in alleys existing.

  25. The city is cleaner than it has been in the 36 years I lived here. Homeless people smell. Chinatown has an odor. Lot's of people have dog's in Manhattan that piss all over. Maybe the smell is just so familiar it doesn't even smell anymore.

  26. NYC to me smells like Garbage, industrial exhaust, and cooking food. Occasionally like weed and sewage. The stagnant puddles of water that gather in dowtown (near the Ferry for example) smell really really really bad. But I still love it more than any place in the world.

  27. I'm French, and EVERY.SINGLE house and building in the country is given, for free, a big trash can (5 feet tall, 1.5m high) or more depending on the household. A city truck then collects, automatically empties it; and employees place it back in less than 5 seconds. I've been appaled to see that some countries only have block containers you have to walk to, or even worse like Belgium, trash bags on sidewalks everywhere. It's filthy, unsanitary….Yuck!

  28. Because money. That’s why. NY needed a Daniel Burham and a hundred years of corrupt politicians to create an ideal city. Weird I know but Chicago actually works!

  29. I knew that NYC smelled bad… but was it THAT awful? I used to live there and my Autism should make me more sensitive to this stuff… I guess people just get used to it.
    The streets were indeed kind of gross though. I don’t think I’ve seen so much grimy, old gum on a street anywhere else.

  30. Just goes to show Man can fail miserably and still make it successful. Ignorance is our best approach to problem solving.

  31. Tbh I haven’t seen a single New Yorker give a dam. We just kinda deal with Manhattan having trash pile up in a few days. What is truly disgusting is the MTA.

    Also for any other New Yorker do you just get a swell of city wide nationalist pride when you see these videos trying to say crap wrong with New York. We are the only ones that get to say this city if crap overpriced and not as great as anyone thinks.

  32. as a native born nyc'r let me remind that you're free to NOT come here. EVER. like really. don't come. not for work, vacation or otherwise. yup it's smelly. don't come. stay away. we'd really appreciate your absence.

  33. The smell and the honking really did a number on me when I went to New York 2 years ago. Went there again this fall and the difference was HUGE. Especially the noise

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