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Man Bites Town

SCENTS OF LOSS : Once Upon a Time, the Local Geography Reeked of Industry

May 12, 1991|Harry Shearer

The stereotype of L.A. isn't big enough. Nobody's is--that's the whole point of stereotypes. If you wanted to know more than a stereotype tells you, you'd have to read a book or something. So this city's cliches have stopped well short of, for example, the crows. Ask a TV viewer in Chicago what L.A. is famous for, and he would probably not say, "The crows." Yet, for anyone growing up here, there's a recurring memory of the crows, yakking it up on lazy summer afternoons (lazy for me; the crows seemed plenty busy). Hardier than many landmark buildings, they are with us still today.

The only smell that Los Angeles is noted for is the vague aroma of unbreathability on high-ozone days. But in the recent past, the local geography was dotted with smells. There was a dairy farm on La Cienega. There were bakeries, known to noses for miles around, like the Helms plant on West Venice, now a coalition of furniture showrooms. And, ironically, better-smelling yet, there was a Wonder Bread bakery in Beverly Hills.

Wonder Bread and Beverly Hills--those words don't even seem to exist in the same language. Wouldn't the city fathers of our world-class poshopolis have insisted that, if you're going to bake anything within the city limits, it's going to be croissants and baguettes (maybe some corn rye at night)? But for years, the drive along Santa Monica Boulevard was accessorized with the best part of corporate white bread: the smell of it being created.

Amiable aromas were the occasional fringe benefits of having manufacturing facilities inside American cities. No one who drove into San Francisco until very recently could ignore that city's salute to the schnoz: the smell of coffee being roasted at a large downtown shipper next to the freeway. There is a Chicago neighborhood that for years nestled beneath the sweet haze coming from the chocolate factory at its center.

Sure, manufacturing put out more than its share of foul odors. It's a proven fact that the factories that turn out brown-paper bags stink like a Kansas City slaughterhouse on a bad day in August. Maybe this is one of the charms of life that is never so charming until it disappears, but the smell of good stuff being made was a definite attraction of city life.

Those city smells are fast disappearing, if not already long gone. The American economy has assigned the making of things to other corners of the world. They don't roast coffee on a large scale in San Francisco anymore; has the whole business been centralized somewhere in Michiana?

Advances in refrigeration and transport, and the takeover of big regional food companies by huge national food companies, which in turn got bought by mammoth, cash-rich tobacco companies, have led to the Ghirardelli Squaring of the old in-town factories. The only smells coming from the old Jackson Brewery in New Orleans these days are those of perfumed candles and the odd fragrance you detect when large amounts of trendy clothing are being sold under one roof.

Maybe air-pollution rules are wiping out some of the smells. After all, there are boutique bakeries and boutique breweries, but if you didn't know they were there, your nose wouldn't tell you. It could be that the aromatic gases escaping from those ovens and roasters were as bad for us as the smoky effluent of the charcoal grills and the dangerous pungency of dry cleaning in action. But the less attractive odors are still with us. Anyone driving the 405 past refinery row knows that.

The things that most of us spend our working days doing just don't--with the exception of show business--declare themselves to the public nostrils. Perfuming the city, like creating jobs, is a task that's been left to retail. Restaurants, pupuserias , leather stores, beauty salons--who can resist the cantata of hair sprays wafting out the door? Bars still send out their aromatic advisory that brains are being marinated within.

Ultimately, we are lucky enough to have two natural sources of city fragrance that have made it into the lore: the ocean, whose briny call occasionally penetrates east of Sepulveda, and the desert. Sometimes, on one of those special nights when the Santa Anas are blowing just right, you can stand 100 miles southwest of the desert and take a deep draft of air that smells of wildflowers and chaparral.

It's pretty spectacular. You'd swear they were baking Wonder Bread up there.

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