Ten years ago today, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's press schedule announced an event at 11 a.m., with this tantalizing description: "Reveals Sources of Mysterious but Harmless Maple Syrup Odors"
Yes, New York City had finally figured out where a strange, extremely sweet scent had come from, after nearly four years of making New Yorkers simultaneously confused and really hungry for pancakes.
The first time the scent was picked up was the evening of October 27th, 2005. I happened to be in Tribeca—our Shanghaiist editor at the time, Dan Washburn, was in town so Jake Dobkin and I had dinner with him at Odeon—and when we walked towards Chambers Street, the air smelled just like maple syrup. It was as if a tanker of maple syrup had crashed into a giant lumberjack breakfast somewhere.
It was strange, but it was unclear how fazed we should be. Four years after the September 11th attacks, anything weird happening in Lower Manhattan (or anywhere else in the city) made everyone more than a bit anxious—the city had just instituted bag checks at subway stations that summer— so the sudden strong smell was unnerving. Deliciously unnerving.
Then again, what if it was as simple as a tanker of maple syrup having an unfortunate spillage? And was this happening anywhere else? In those days before social media, there was no way to search whether other people smelled something, but we were lucky that some other people who noticed the smell posted about it on our old message board, Gothamist Contribute:
Same smell is pervading the Greenwich Village / NYU area -- both outdoors and in, I smelled it in my apt earlier and thought a neighbor was making french toast or something but it's clearly something bigger. Maple syrup dirty bomb???
October 28th, 2005 02:09 AM
I'm on W. 96th St. and I can smell it, too. I thought there was some food hidden in my room somewhere.
October 28th, 2005 01:04 AM
The air smells of maple syrup in the Upper West Side. Anonymous individual sources questioned at street corners around Harlem agree that for some reason it smells very sweet and syrupy. Everyone speculates that a pancake truck or maple syrup factory has caught on fire. Perhaps Gothamist can investigate? (around Columbia Uni area + Harlem area)
October 28th, 2005 12:50 AM
Comedian Michelle Collins wrote on her blog, "Were we being attacked? Does chemical warfare taste like memories? No, that's impossible: Pancake-lovers = Freedom-fighters. I enjoyed my deliciously fragrant hike uptown, came home and figured I had syrup on the brain or something of the sort."
The city didn't know where the smell was coming from, and it seemed it was just a weird one-time event... until December 8th, 2005.
A reader told us she called 311 about the smell near Columbia University, and others confirmed they could smell it in Bryant Park, Washington Square Park, Upper East Side, West Village, Fifth Avenue along the 20s and 30s, Astor Place, Upper West Side, Long Island City, Bedford Avenue, East Harlem, Hell's Kitchen, Gowanus (we even created a map)... the smell had reached so many corners of the city!
Aerial shot of NYC in 2007 (Shutterstock)
One reader claimed, "I smelled it very strongly at 12 noon in the West Village... then in the subway at 23rd street on the 1 line and later at 2 p.m. on 103rd Street and Broadway. I called 311 they connected me to 911 and then three firetrucks came within minutes and the guys went in and out of the subway station. I think we need to demand that the government gives us an explanation. They lied about the quality of air downtown after 9/11. We have to demand accountability."
Again, the city's Office of Emergency Management could not detect a smell or provide an explanation (how do you capture a smell anyway?).
The smells continued—January 2006, March 2006, November 2006. One commenter was shocked that it was unclear what was behind the smell, "I, too, find it ridiculous that this happens, and nothing comes of it. I don't want to be dramatic, but it's NYC for chrissakes! The country's at war, we've been attacked, and a frigging syrup smell blankets the city, and no one figures out why. I just don't get it. Why aren't city, state, and federal officials addressing this. It's the THIRD time!"
30 Rock incorporated the weird event into the cold open of a show
The scent took a year-long break but came back in November 2007, and then a week later, the phenomenon made it to 30 Rock (watch it), as a point of discussion between Liz Lemon, Tracy Jordan, and Jack Donaghy. Donaghy says, "Don't panic, Lemon, it's probably not a chemical attack... It's probably just a strange wind pattern coming over those factories in Staten Island where food flavors are made. I don't think it's Northrax."
The scent returned in May 2008, and I made a Google Map tracking where it was detected. When it came back in January 2009 on three occasions (the 5th and then the 27th and 30th), I made some more maps, even getting a little fancy with Photoshop:
January 27 and January 30, 2009 smell incidents
Then, on February 5th, 2009, mayoral press secretary Jason Post emailed, "City officials from the Mayor’s office, OEM and DEP have determined the source of the maple syrup odors. We are announcing the source at 11 AM in the blue room. Since you have covered this extensively, I hope you can come to City Hall for the event. If you can’t come down it will be webcast live on nyc.gov and on TV on channel 74."
Now, back in those days, the NYPD didn't issue press cards to digital-only publications (we had to hire Norman Siegel to help us get press credentials, which is another pretty interesting story), so this was it, the validation we'd been hoping for: Recognition for intrepid reporting on the greatest olfactory mystery of our time.
Before heading to the press conference, I created a poll:
The set-up in City Hall's Blue Room was pretty serious, with multiple city officials present. Mayor Bloomberg very clearly enjoyed being able to take the public through the city's methodical approach to the situation, detailing how the agencies figured out that the smell was, in fact, from New Jersey.
The smell, officials explained, came from Frutarom, a company that processed perfumes and food additives, and it turned out that its factory in North Bergen, NJ, had been processing fenugreek, which releases a scent very similar to maple syrup. During the press conference, Bloomberg said he enjoys maple syrups on French toast; the city knew the smell wasn't dangerous because no one went to the hospital; not all of NJ is polluted, plus, uh, look at Willets Point; and, in response to my question, no, NYC would not be implementing a maple smell alert system.
It turns out that the event was so official because the city did take it very seriously. Back in 2009, James McConnell was Assistant Commissioner for Strategic Data for NYC Emergency Management (then known as the Office of Emergency Management), and he recalled that while the department had been getting reports about the smell, there just wasn't enough data. Even if someone called 311 to report it, McConnell said in an interview last week, "It's such an ephemeral event... people would report the smell and then it would be dissipated in 20 minutes, so it's very hard to to record and to do any type of forensic investigation about it."
City Hall (Shutterstock)
Post, the former press secretary for Mayor Bloomberg, remembered smelling maple syrup a couple of times, both around Gramercy Park and outside City Hall. In a recent conversation, he said, "It was a very distinctive smell and it's something that was just very odd. And it just wasn't normal. A lot of people were talking about it but until I smelled it I didn't really get it and I said, 'Oh, yeah, this is really a distinctive thing.'"
City Hall was aware of it, but "it was something that everyone was looking at without understanding what was going on," Post remembered. "This was still in the post-9/11 era. So it could be cause for concern. And it was definitely a talked-about story."
It was a real challenge for the city to tackle. NYC Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Edward Timbers said, "Typically when an analyst is taking air samples they are looking to measure something specific—i.e. asbestos fibers or Volatile Organic Compounds. What made the 2009 incident unique was that the analysts were not looking for something specific because they did not know what it was that was causing the sweet smell."
There were only "a handful of clues to go on" but McConnell revealed that the series of smellings in 2009 prompted Emergency Management Deputy Commissioner of Technology Henry Jackson to seize the moment. "He was determined," McConnell said, and Jackson pulled together a team to tackle the mystery: "He said, 'You know, we're getting these reports. Let's just spend a lot of time on this next week just to see if we can really figure it out this time.'"
Maple syrup smell tips, smelly tapped in early 2009 (Jen Chung / Gothamist)
While the investigation lacked a solid nickname like "Operation Breakfast," a number of agencies were involved, from city agencies like the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, plus the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and National Weather Service.
The NWS information was regarding "wind speeds and temperatures from all those previous days when things had been reported—particularly wind direction was very important and wind speed," McConnell, who is now retired, explained. "We reached out to colleagues at the NJ Department of Environmental Protection—there had been some previous guesses that it might be food processing plants because of the sweet smell. So we've worked with them and got a list of all the food processing plants across the river from us."
McConnell said Emergency Management used their community emergency response teams in the Bronx, who found residents who could "just go out on the street and confirm the smell" where reports popped up again. While it sounds "ad hoc," McConnell reiterated the difficulty of tracking down a smell: "It dissipated so quickly that it was the only way that we would be able to confirm. So using these forensic tools we were able to backtrack and pinpoint that the plant that we believed was producing the smell—and in fact that night, one of the biggest [factories] confirmed they were doing some processing that night."
The NYC DEP also collected air samples, and, after hours of analysis, they focused in on fenugreek. "We weren't concerned about the maple syrup smell itself," McConnell told us, "but because of 9/11 and other things, [the department was] concerned that there might be something being released that would be difficult to track. So we actually took this as a good way to test our 'tool kit'"—gathering data from various departments and agencies—"to see how we could retroactively figure out the source of an odor."
While social media seems like a great tool to be used in solving mysteries like the strange scent of maple syrup, there usually isn't enough data from a Tweet for Emergency Management to use—not everyone is geotagging their Tweets—so it's usually more of a starting point. On the other hand, McConnell said, a 311 operator can ask for more precise details, like an address and even a floor number.
Maple syrup smell map presented by the Office of Emergency Management and Mayor Bloomberg on February 5, 2009 (Jen Chung / Gothamist)
In the end, the town of North Bergen staunchly denied that it was the source of the smell that had been plaguing New Yorkers for years. Town spokesperson Phil Swibinski issued a fighting statement in 2009: "While North Bergen would be happy to take credit for sharing our sweet smell of success, the fact is that the NJDEP has not concluded that Frutarom is the source of this smell in New York. Some health experts believe that it is highly unlikely that a food-based emission from a small plant like this could be so strongly detected three or four miles away."
Ten years later, Swibinski stands by the statement, in spite of the city's claim that the NJ DEP said that the smell came from Frutarom. "We didn't receive any heads up—so all of a sudden it was quite a bit of attention," he remembered. He said that the town had communicated with the local representatives of the Hudson Regional Health Commission, "who are in touch with the DEP, and there was some back and forth, and it was communicated to us that there actually hadn't been any determination that the smell was from here. And we decided that we wanted to get out there and fight for our town's reputation."
Even though the blame has been attributed to North Bergen and town officials were upset, they weren't too hurt. Swibinski pointed out, "If it had been that a more offensive smell was coming from North Bergen, maybe it would have sparked more of an outrage. But the fact that it was maple syrup? Nobody was too worked up about it."
Before the 2009 "maple syrup event" (as Wikipedia calls it), when someone called 311 about a strange maple syrup smell, there was no classification of "sweet smells" for operators to use, so many of those calls would be classified as a smell of "other," with more details in the notes. Afterwards, a "sweet smell" was added to the list of possible odors (which include more obvious ones like gas or "dry cleaning smell" or "car idling"). Here's how many reports of "sweet smells" there have been since:
311 calls about a "sweet" smell
(Data from NYC DEP)
2011 - 5
2012 - 15
2013 - 16
2014 - 23
2015 - 43
2016 - 34
2017 - 42
2018 - 15
2019 - none yet
Interestingly, Frutarom was bought out by a larger international corporation and then closed its North Bergen facility in 2015. But the sweet smell continued to be reported through the end of last year...