Tell people that you have created a fragrance based on the stories of Christopher Street, and you are bound to elicit some very interesting responses (i.e. “What does THAT smell like?”). These types of reactions, of course, stem from Christopher Street‘s infamous reputation as historical home to merchants, mobsters, and misfits. The accompanying imagery this conjures in one’s mind has been used to reference life in Greenwich Village since its founding. A way to distinguish Village life from the more refined ways of life in the Manhattan grid.
When I first started profiling Christopher Street for inspiration, I also began keeping a journal of people’s thoughts and memories from its past. I wanted to know how it looked and felt through their perspectives to help add context to the scent memories also being captured. This is something I have continued to do as the Christopher Street story adds new chapters. Here are some of my favorite first responses to “What does Christopher Street smell like to you?”:
“damp, dirty, and seedy…like an aged outhouse.”
“like wig head, sweaty hose, and testicles.”
“coffee, tea, and desperation.”
“like piss, stale beer, and New Jersey.”
“passed its expiration date.”
As you can see from the descriptions above, “floral” is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when people envision this neighborhood (especially today). Yet, the truth is that there are lots of flowers to be found all along Christopher Street. While they may not play a predominant role in defining its overall character, the flowers of Christopher Street act as connective tissue to both its setting and its history, adding an element of color and life, a touch of natural beauty within its more subversive surroundings. These flowers symbolize the unlikely heroes of Christopher Street as discussed in the brief.
Flowering from Filth (The Inspiration of Carnation)
During the late 1960’s, Stonewall was the place to be for listening to good music and dancing on Christopher Street. The scene inside, however, was a complete dive. At Stonewall, there was no running water behind the bar, and no fire exits. Toilets overran consistently. Glasses were run through tubs of still water and immediately reused at the bar. As the only space for gays in New York City where slow dancing was allowed, Stonewall always attracted a very mixed crowd despite its rundown interiors.
Early in the creative process, Ralf and I gravitated toward this image of what life would have been like inside Stonewall, particularly this description of the tub of still water used to wash glasses behind the bar. The idea we discussed was to try and have something flower from its dingy waters. Just like the unlikely protesters rising up during the Stonewall Riots of ’69, an unlikely floral note lifting through the alcoholic citrus and smoke on top. Carnation, with its spicy undertones, was seen as a perfect foil for counterbalancing the more subversive elements found in the final Christopher Street fragrance.
Christopher Street Fragrance
So why carnation? As I said above, the floral notes in Christopher Street were always talked about as representative of the unlikely political heroes rising up during The Stonewall Riots. These flowers never dominate the olfactive impression, but instead echo in the shadows of the fragrance’s other accords. Like a Victorian bouquet, each flower chosen carries with it a symbolic reference to life on Christopher Street.
The story of carnation begins with the Christopher Street Day Pride March, and the many floral moments witnessed each year. From cut flowers seen decorating the many floats and people, to blossoms in full bloom along the parade route. They are symbols of love, beauty, and pride. Flowers move the fragrance “out of the bottle, and into the street.”
So, too, is carnation present in the story of Jefferson Market Garden. Officially established in 1974, this beautiful patch of greenery on 6th Avenue sits in the shadows of the Jefferson Market Courthouse, current home to the New York Public Library in Greenwich Village. Before becoming a garden, Jefferson Market was indeed a bustling marketplace as well as site of a Women’s House of Detention (the only one in NYC when founded). Here is yet another example found on Christopher Street of ascending from a subversive past: transitioning from prison to garden. Carnations, peonies, roses… Jefferson Market Garden is a cornucopia of pleasant floral aromas.
According to gardening myth, burying clove nails at the base of a carnation plant helps enrich its spicy aroma. I have always considered the triangular shaped Northern Dispensary as the base from which the rest of the Christopher Street grows. As a former dental clinic, there are cloves “buried within its walls.” This is because before the days of novocaine, doctors would use clove to numb a patient’s gums before performing any dental procedure. Some current residents of Christopher Street claim that so much clove was used inside the Northern Dispensary that it can still be smelled leeching from the building’s windows when it rains.
Last, but not least, is Craig Rodwell’s Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, formerly at 15 Christopher Street (currently home to a day spa). Setting up shop on Christopher Street in 1973, it was the first bookstore dedicated exclusively to LGBT authors and served as an early meeting space for activists and organizers. Unfortunately, OWMB officially closed its doors in 2009 due to financial difficulties. The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop was named after famous author and dandy, Oscar Wilde, who is often associated with the green carnation.
Carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus) – From the Greek word ‘carnis‘ meaning ‘flesh,’ a reference to the flower’s carnal color. Carnations are native to Southern Europe and were known to have been used in medieval Arabic perfumery as well as in formulations crafted during the Tudor times of Britain. Today, it is estimated that carnation notes are used in about 20% of fragrances categorized as “masculine.” Carnation possesses a rich, clove-like spicy floral odor (stemming from its main chemical component, Eugenol).
Over the years, carnation has been used to make black hair dye and also as a flavoring component in beers, ales, and wines. Medicinally, it has been prescribed to help combat fevers. It is believed that burying dried cloves at the base of a carnation plant helps enrich the desired spicy fragrant qualities produced by its flowers. Carnations are sometimes also referred to as ‘Pinks‘ because of how their petal edges are serrated as though cut with a pair of pinking shears.
Do you have a Christopher Street carnation story?