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Charlotte, what's that smell?

A local author uncovers the mystery behind many of the odors that linger around the city


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Just about everyone knows the close connection between smell and memory. Odors that you once recognized perhaps only on a subconscious level can suddenly conjure vivid memories when re-introduced later in life.

There are also certain aromas we associate with specific places: New York's Chinatown, for example, smells like fish. New Orleans's French Quarter is notorious for smelling like a mixture of alcohol and Cajun/Creole cooking. Right here in North Carolina — Winston-Salem, in fact — residents and visitors alike will tell you the center-city district has a lingering odor of sweetly tinged tobacco, courtesy of RJ Reynolds.

So what are some of the signature smells of Charlotte?

As a native, I can recall a few. Some good; others, not so much.

Murray Bakery Products

"That smell has always been there for as long as I can remember," says Janet Kruger, a former resident of Charlotte's Plaza-Midwood neighborhood. "When it hits me today, it takes me back to my childhood. Walking to school in the early morning, the smell of butter cookies would wash over you like a fine mist."

The odor Kruger is referring to comes from a company that opened its doors in 1940 as The Murray Biscuit Co. Located on Louise Avenue and bounded by the Elizabeth, Plaza-Midwood and Belmont neighborhoods, it still stands, but it has since merged with Kellogg's and Keebler and manufactures much more than it did 72 years ago. Today, the production plant continues to fill the surrounding neighborhoods with the fragrant perfume of Murray's sugar-free Cookies, Oreos, oatmeal-raisin cookies and various other sweet and savory snacks.

Charlotte Pipe and Foundry

Although the smell is clearly neither sweet nor savory, it certainly is an odor that will stick with you. The Charlotte Pipe and Foundry began business in 1901 under the direction of founder and owner Frank Dowd in what was then the Third Ward neighborhood. For years, the acrid effluvium — a bit difficult to describe — was synonymous with Charlotte's west side, although it could permeate neighborhoods like Dilworth and Revolution Park quite headily, depending on production levels and wind direction.

"Skank. That's how I'd describe it," says Robert Johnson, who grew up in the nearby Wesley Heights neighborhood. "On hot summer days — even if you pinched your nose or fanned in front of your face — you couldn't escape it."

The tang that once thickly painted the air has decreased dramatically in the 21st century, though it still rears its olfactory onslaught enough to instigate a response like Johnson's upon occasion.

Although I'm inclined to agree with his assessment, I was curious as to what exactly caused the particular pungency. For an answer, I went straight to the source: "It's combustion," says Brad Muller, the vice president of marketing at the company. "It's the melting of iron."

Carolina Foods

If you're driving past the corner of Tryon Street and East Boulevard with your windows down, the smell hits you as hard as a bucket of Krispy Kreme donut glaze. Don't be confused though; it's not some ancient odor left behind from the long-gone Krispy Kreme doughnut store front that once hawked the sweet treats nearby. It's Carolina Foods, which manufactures its own brand of Duchess doughnuts, coffee cakes, Dunkin Sticks and more. It's been in operation since the 1930s, when it opened under the direction of Vernon Scarborough. The same family owns the business today.

"I can recall that smell when I was a little girl," says Victoria Westbrook, who moved to Charlotte when she was just 4. "I don't live in that part of town anymore, but every time I go to Dilworth that sweet smell of doughnuts and pastries takes me back to my childhood. Somehow, it seems kind of reassuring, perhaps because it reminds me of a very early time in my life."

For residents of Dilworth, South End and Wilmore, it's a signature neighborhood scent. For Charlotte, it's one of a handful of intoxicating smells that create the city's aromatic landscape.

David Aaron Moore is a Charlotte native and the author of Charlotte: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem.