The Smell of Shark



N Moore St, NY, NY 10013

Neighborhood: Tribeca

About a month ago, a terrible new smell turned up on North Moore Street in Tribeca. It did not coexist peacefully with the other smells on the street: the coffee and cooking smells from Bubby’s, a local hangout; the sweet, strong smell of olive oil stored in Hillside Imperial Foods; pepper and nutmeg smells from Atlanta, a spice warehouse; the beer smell from Walker’s, the neighborhood bar; and the hay, manure, antiseptic, and horse-sweat smells coming out of the police stables on the corner of Varick. The new smell routed all those other smells. The rich olfactory texture of the street was shattered.


The smell seemed to have no center. Sometimes it left North Moore altogether and glided down to Franklin or up to Beach. It behaved more like a mist than a smell, rising at odd hours of the night, clinging to cobblestones and loading docks, creeping over roofs, and settling in the breezeways behind people’s lofts. No one could say just what the smell was–only that it was certainly caused by putrefaction of some kind of flesh. Blaustein & Son, plumbers, at No. 32, thought that the smell might be rotting human flesh, and called the cops.

Blaustein: We get a lot of bad smells in this business, but I never smelled anything like that.

Son: It was like blood.

Blaustein: A very stale, musty smell, like something in an old closet.

James Herman, a painter who lives at No. 42: "I worked in a slaughterhouse as a kid, and this was worse than anything I ever smelled on the killing floor. I think there were actually two smells. One was a dank, very musty-smelling odor, and the other was this real pungent, acid odor. It was a very aggressive smell.

Ernie Lee, a caterer, who lives at No. 40: "At first, I thought my dog had peed in the house, so I went out and bought a bunch of disinfectants. Then I went to see if the fire hydrant outside the building was the source of the smell. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. It was like a phantom smell. You’d be doing something and suddenly it would just show up, like a person. You couldn’t do anything once it was there–couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t do any intimate acts."

Finally, someone had the idea of asking James, North Moore’s homeless person, who sleeps in the doorway of No. 37. James pointed to No. 31-33 and said, "The Chinese."

No. 31-33 is in the middle of the block and has a sign over the door that says "T. Chan Enterprises." It turned out that the owner, Mr. Charlie Chan, had been exporting food from there for about a year. Recently, he had expanded into the shark-fin business, which is a good business to be in these days. Crates full of the dorsal fins of different species of shark were being brought to 31-33, processed, and shipped to Asia for use in shark-fin soup. The classical method of processing a shark fin is to leave it out in the sun until it rots. Mr. Chan, lacking the facilities for that, was blowing hot air onto the fins in two sauna-like chambers he had installed in the basement. The exhaust was being vented from a grate on the ground floor into the air of North Moore Street.

A spell of humid August weather set in and the smell on North Moore Street became unbearable. Pedestrians avoided the street. Cabdrivers wouldn’t stop there. James the homeless person left. The smell got into Bouley, and the Tribeca Grill, two of the fashionable restaurants in the area. By the middle of the month, Rachel Friedman, who lives on North Moore, had plastered the street with notices urging neighbors to call Kathryn Freed, their City Council member, and to call the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, in Brooklyn. Ms. Friedman had already spent two weeks on the phone with an array of municipal authorities, trying to figure out which one was responsible for bad smells. She had discovered that government is not constituted to cope with smells–that, of all the senses, smell is the least susceptible to regulation. "You’d think that in this city there would be some kind of Smell Complaint Bureau, but there isn’t," Ms. Friedman says. "The Department of Agriculture and Markets told me that if the shark fins inside the building were spoiled, it could do something. The Department of Sanitation told me that if the shark fins were lying out on the sidewalk, it could help. The Bureau of Consumer Affairs would be interested if someone were charging too much for shark fins. The EPA wanted to know whether breathing shark fin was harmful to our health. But no one would touch smell. When I called Kathryn Freed’s assistant, Stacy, and said ‘bad smells,’ she wasn’t too interested. When I said ‘rats,’ that changed everything."

Kathryn Freed came and smelled the street. "It was like something had died. Horrible. A carrion stench," she said later. Then, a couple of weeks ago, Inspector Paul Feldman of Ag and Markets came and smelled the street, and decided to take a look at T. Chan Enterprises. (Inspector Feldman is the nearest thing this city has to an official nose.) On the way back to his office, he found that people were fleeing the subway car he was in, he smelled so bad. Soon afterward, Feldman returned, and confiscated some of the shark fins. He asked Mr. Chan to suspend his operation, and Mr. Chan did. Whether Mr. Chan will be cited for any violations depends on whether he ever had a license to process shark fins (apparently he didn’t), and on whether the Ag and Markets lab determines that the shark fins are fit to eat. " If our inspectors seized the product, something probably isn’t right with the fins," Mary Ann Waters, of Ag and Markets’ public-affairs office, in Albany, said, explaining why the agency had the authority to shut Chan’s shark-fin operation down. "We have reports that some of the fins may be insect infested. Maybe the Chinese like their shark fins this way, but in our view, it isn’t right."

Several days after the Ag and Markets action, we dropped in on Mr. Chan Enterprises and met Daniel Chan, the son of the owner. Daniel Chan said that the company was developing a new shark-fin-processing method, and hoped to resume operations soon, on the sixth floor. He took us to the basement. The smell at the top of the stairs was bad, and it became more awful with each step down. Maybe because smell is close to the neural center of fantasy, as we descended the stairs, we had a vision of the shark fin-business from the shark’s point of view–being caught, de-fined, and tossed overboard still alive, unable to swim, to be eaten by other sharks.

At the bottom of the stairs were two machines called ozone neutralizers, which Mr. Chan said the company had leased for two hundred dollars a month in order to improve the smell. Beyond the ozone neutralizers were the processing chambers. Mr. Chan inhaled the foul air deeply and smiled. "No smell," he said. "See? No smell."

August 1992

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