According to nonofficial sources, the area around the 11218 zip code, in the Kensington/Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn, is one of the most ethnically diverse in the country. I’ve taken a couple of summertime strolls down Church Avenue, one of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares, and each time I’ve been struck by the changing landscape of aromas.
Walking east from the corner of Westminster Road, the smell of hot oil seeps from beneath the door of No. 1 Restaurant, followed closely by spice and charred meat from a barbecue joint. Then comes the warm-scalp scent of hair relaxer from Paris Hair Design, balanced by cold gusts of linoleum, freezer burn, and wet mop from C-Town, with its tins of export soda crackers and Café Bustelo. The Rugby Road intersection offers a refreshing waft of mown grass, but this is quickly overwhelmed by gusts of diesel bus exhaust from the B35 outside the DNA Paternity Testing Center at Burlingham Road (sign outside: Does he really have his father’s eyes?).
The entrance of Bobby’s Department Store yawns open with the plastic smell of cheap rubber sandals spilling from cardboard crates, mingling with more grease from neighboring Chin Chin Wu restaurant. Kids race their tongues against melting ice pops from a jangling Good Humor truck, with its sugary cold breath. Next comes rancid fish from S&A Fish Market with its flashing fish logo, then one of my favorite urban smells: the warm floral gusts of Tide and Downy from the Super Li Laundromat. Near the corner of East 17th Street I detect the tang of ketchup from a mysterious source. On the next corner, bags of star anise, cinnamon, mangos, pineapples, and enormous foam-padded bras spill from the open panel door of a curbside van.
Men’s cologne and synthesized piano music drift through the iron door grate of the Brooklyn Gospel Assembly Church, with its rows of folding chairs beneath fluorescent lights. The laundry a few doors down offers no smells through its bulletproof windows, nor does the shuttered Brooklyn Islamic Center, near the roti shop with its banners advertising “ Recession Meals” in the form of the “Micro mini” and “Super mini” plates of Caribbean food. I turn around at the corner of St. Paul’s Place, with its confluence of fruit stands smelling like the cool inside of a just-cut squash. At J&S discount, across the street from Bobby’s, the air smells like human body odor, relieved a few doors down by syrupy cologne from La Chic Ladies Fashion.
As I am nearing the end of my journey, a woman in a high-Sunday suit passes me, carrying a box of roses. I wish I could say the fragrance lingered in her wake, but it quickly gave itself to the larger bouquet of these iconic few blocks of Brooklyn.