A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

SMELL: The scent of vanilla by the Gowanus Canal

It’s true that most people don’t walk down Third Avenue in Brooklyn, near the fetid mouth of the Gowanus Canal, and under the dripping shadow of the Gowanus Expressway overpass. Third Avenue is the thoroughfare of gypsy cabs, rattling delivery trucks, and low-riders with tinted windows. The neighborhood is Sunset Heights, but not much sun shines down here.

But if you do happen to be walking in the vicinity of 882 Third Avenue, between Thirty-second and Thirty-third streets (perhaps in search of cheap gas, a cheap car alarm, or a cheap XXX video), probably the last thing you expect to be reminded of is your grandmother’s kitchen. Yet a mysterious vanilla scent lingers in the air, mingling with the car exhaust and faint sewage stench wafting off the water. The source is the Virginia Dare Extract Company, whose plant is at this address, and which has been manufacturing vanilla extract, among other flavorings, for more than 80 years.

On the day I visited, right before Valentine’s Day, the breeze rattled the plastic bags trapped in the barbed-wire fence and collected the vanilla fragrance into gusts whenever I rounded a corner. Trucks idled at the loading docks in back of the plant, and lone men lingered at the water’s edge. Yet as I was approaching my car, I noticed a man climbing into a minivan parked nearby, struggling to keep hold of a bouquet of helium heart balloons, which whipped and snapped against the strange, fragrant wind.