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Brock About Town: Iowa City’s five smells


Illustration by Lev Cantoral

Last weekend, I took my boyfriend to Cedar Rapids to meet the home folks. It was a beautiful afternoon, so we rolled the windows down as we passed through the scenic downtown area, and then he instantly rolled them back up.

Now, I’ll be honest: I lived in Cedar Rapids for so long, I hardly notice the supposed assault on the olfactory organs being perpetrated by the Quaker Oats corporation. (Except Crunchberry day. I look forward to that shit for weeks.) Mostly, I think the whole “City of Five Smells” joke is more of a meme than an actual observation being made by the people who won’t shut up about it. After all, every town smells like something, right? Why is Cedar Rapids getting singled out in all this?

And that got me thinking: if Iowa City had five iconic, defining smells, what would they be?

  1. The ginkgo trees on the Pentacrest, which, particularly in the summer, reek of… well, you know. Or, if you don’t, ask your big sister.
  2. A townie bar: slightly dank, redolent of spilled PBR and stale French fries, with hints of the cigarette smoke wafting in through the front door. Yum.
  3. A brand-new book from the self-help section of Prairie Lights, being huffed by a freshman creative writing major who thinks the fact that paper smells good is the kind of brilliant insight that’s going to get her that Pulitzer.
  4. The vaguely comforting, extremely crunchy aroma of the vitamin aisle at the New Pioneer Co-op, and also most of the people who buy their vitamins there.
  5. That particular way in which Victoria’s Secret Love Spell mingles with the coffee smell at the Clinton Street Starbucks to create a sort of basic miasma.

We’re definitely going to need our own candle.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 298.


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