Over on the 6th Place cul de sac in Northeast, down the hill and across the tracks, something isn’t right. “We can’t stand outdoors like we used to,” says Daniella Bryce, who’s lived the Michigan Park neighborhood since she was 4 years old. “It smells like something’s dead out there.”
But when asked to elaborate on the dead-smelling odor, Bryce falters—even though she’s been sniffing it on and off for at least a few years. Rotting eggs and meat come close, but they don’t exactly capture the full-on intensity of the smell, which also contains hints of armpit, long-gone dairy products, and maybe vomit.
To many residents of Michigan Park, the smell is known simply as “it.” “It” may not make its presence known immediately; on some days, particularly cool ones, it lurks beneath the strangely pungent, artificially sweet scent of air freshener. On other days, “it” will masquerade as a passing stink, drifting by on a breeze. But eventually, “it” demands attention. According to Bryce and other residents, this summer “it” was in top form, assailing their noses with the unmistakably gross bouquet of rotting garbage.
For residents, “it” is the smell that emanates from the Fort Totten Waste Transfer Station, which sits just across the Metro and railroad tracks from 6th Place. But this month, there may be a reprieve for the residents who live within the fog. On Nov. 26, the city plans to open up the first part of the new building that has been built at the old Benning Road trash-transfer station. Officials hope that the reopening of Benning Road will lighten the garbage load at Fort Totten—and thereby possibly improve the stench in Michigan Park. As District Solid Waste Administrator Tom Henderson says, “having less trash in there should have a favorable impact.”
The residents, however, aren’t holding their breath—just their noses. Nimrod Goings, who has lived in the neighborhood for 16 years, talks about the smell as if it were an uninvited guest intent on crashing his upcoming holiday dinner. “I’m hoping it [doesn’t] happen for Thanksgiving,” he says.
In order to combat the smell, Goings, who operates a beauty-pageant-gown alteration shop in his basement, has installed power-outlet Glade-type air fresheners and constantly sprays Lysol where he’s working. He says he isn’t as affected by the stench as he fears his clients might be, admitting that “once you smell it so much you kind of get immune to it.” But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t made him think twice about having a cookout. “You wouldn’t dare have no barbecue when [the smell’s] like that,” he says.
Some residents say they don’t even have to go outside to suffer. Marquis Waymer says that when the weather’s nice, she’d like to open her windows, but she can’t because the smell makes her nauseated. Even the local UPS man has had run-ins. “Sometimes…it’s really bad,” says Reggie Russaw, who’s worked the route for two-and-a-half years. “I’m over in this area around 2:30 or 3 o’clock,” he adds, “and I usually…smell it.”
But a few houses down from Goings, Donna MacGowens is not as timid. “We do a lot of entertaining in our back yard,” she says. Declaring that the odor won’t get her family down, MacGowens admits to deploying “a few air fresheners on the patio” for those occasions. She doubts that the Benning Road opening will make much of a difference in her battles with the stench. “I don’t see how that’s going to help,” she says. “If they’re going to dump at [Fort Totten], we’re going to continue to have the problem.”
A trip to the trash-transfer station reveals some basis for the residents’ skepticism about the city’s claims that Benning Road will improve their air quality. Despite the mounds of trash, the smell here is not as strong as it is at 6th Place. MacGowens jokes that maybe Fort Totten has fans, blowing out the bad odor.
The facility does not employ fans in that manner. Instead, according to Henderson, it mists the trash with a deodorizer that helps neutralize the odor in the immediate area. Henderson also hints at other stink sources besides the transfer station. “I don’t know that we’re the only odor generator in the neighborhood,” he says, adding that the facility didn’t receive that many complaints until this past summer.
This sort of shifting attribution seems characteristic of the smell, which comes and goes as it pleases, follows few rules, and continues to resist description. Around the corner on Buchanan Street, Kevin Malone and his friend J.B. say they have encountered the smell, though they too have been unable to pin “it” down. “It’s uncomfortable sometimes,” says Malone. J.B., who makes faces at the mere mention of the offending odor, adds, “How can you describe garbage?” CP