Why Does Exchange Place Smell so Bad?
Note: What follows is an intense sensory portrait of one block of New York City - Exchange Place between Broad Street and William Street. This portrait was reported during a 20-minute break in Professor Paul Glader’s Narrative Non-Fiction course at The King’s College.
By 14 King’s students
Gleaming pools of urine, ammonia smell, and steaming hot garbage on the grate of the J/Z line sit comfortably at 11:15 a.m. on a Thursday morning.
Like the pack of rats that take shelter in the trash piles on Exchange Place, 14 young journalists raid what is arguably the smelliest street in New York City, looking for answers.
How can a street smell this damn bad?
Hermes is a high fashion company that sells $50,000 alligator skin handbags. The high-end retailer also employs Broderich Figlia of 16 Direct Cleaning Company to scrub urine off its sidewalk on Exchange Place every morning. Otherwise, it would spill into the luxury goods store.
Figlia, unspoken hero and designated dog urine cleaner has few words to describe his daily encounter with this stretch of pavement: “It smells so bad.”
Figlia doesn’t answer all of our why questions. So we continue on our reporting project to find out why this street smells so bad.
On the other side of the street, Danny Nova, a front desk worker at 20 Exchange Place proclaims that “This area has more dogs than humans!” He sits between two copper lamps in the luxury apartment building. Behind the desk on the ground floor facing the street, Nova has seen the catalyst of this putrid smelling road. It’s the mutts.
Management of 20 Exchange Place, a 57-story Art Deco building, ambitiously tried to enforce the “curb your dog” rule through a fee of $25. They had video surveillance cameras set outside to identify the offenders at one point in recent years. They gave up doing this because enforcement proved too difficult without the authority to fine. The cameras were not, in themselves, enough of a deterrent to dog owners who let their Fido, Lucy or Dumbledog do their business.
Meanwhile, three more petite brown canines empty their bladders on the asphalt nearby.
Bitter and greying, Nova looks over his desk through the revolving doors at a Downtown Alliance worker.. “Why don’t you help out the neighborhood by implementing the laws?” Nova yells. The unidentified and uniformed Downtown Alliance worker acknowledges the street does, in fact, smell bad. However, he wishes not to speak to, “the media” on the issue.
Nova says some workers call this stretch of residential paradise “piss alley,” a term coined originally by Nova’s 20 Exchange Place concierge team. Mountains of trash bags pile up at night on Exchange Place on trash pickup days. They do so in other parts of New York City too. But trash leakage mixes with dog piss, rainwater and other ingredients in a special way on Exchange Place.
Creating an intoxicating smell of damp yeast and soaked fur, the unique smell particularly illuminates the last 400 feet of Exchange Place near Williams. Any New Yorker in the Financial District of Manhattan who has traversed this patch of concrete knows of “piss alley.”
Minimal vehicle traffic passes here because of security barriers placed in the middle of the street. In other words, there is nowhere for the dog urine to go. It is trapped. Fragrant potions of pee, OxiClean, and subway musk fill the potholes. The only thing stirring the concoction is more urine and rain runoff. The sun doesn’t find the ground on Exchange Place either. Tall tan buildings create everlasting shadows, plus pools of piss that never evaporate.
Across the street, the Cucina Bene Pizzeria owner recognizes the scent. A waitress at the Irish pub with the original name “The Irish Punt,” Lauren Greedy has adjusted to the odor. “It's gross but there's nothing you can do,” she says. “The businessmen don't seem to mind it on their way here."
A security guard for the New York Stock Exchange a block away sits in a booth. In his eight years working from William Street to Hanover Street, he claims this small roadway smells the worst.
The unnamed security guard explores the causes of the stench with the curious. “You got a choice; you have dog piss, you have garbage. You really can't control the garbage, but the dog piss -- the doormen and the owners of these places, they'll hose it down, but you're just mixing it up. You're just diluting the piss.”
Some pedestrians who walk down the street hold their nose with their fingers or a part of their coat as they walk through the gauntlet of aromas. Back at 20 Exchange Place, Nova has resigned himself to the stench. “It’s a lot,” Nova said, looking out at the stained sidewalk. “It’s a lot of pee.”