Why has Victoria tube station started to smell like roast meat?

The light at the end of the tunnel. Image: Nick Hilton.

About a year ago, the District line platform at Victoria tube station started to smell a little different. Some said the smell was burgers, some said it was steak. Some said garlic bread, some said onions. Some sick losers said it was burnt track grease or a dead rat. To me, it always smelled like the most delicious roast potatoes, cooked in goose fat.

It was one of those changes that 99 per cent of commuters took for granted, leaving a noble 1 per cent to be perplexed as to why they now left Victoria inexplicably famished. On the internet, the most popular theory was that the smell came from Burger King. Some people are apparently able to discern difference between high-street chains, and, to them, the smell was more Whopper than Big Mac. “To me it's the distinct smell of Burger King,” one said.

Meanwhile, others donned their tin hats. “I'm pretty sure Burger King vent their kitchens onto this platform intentionally and then put adverts up on the station.”

Whilst they’re wrong to point the blame at Burger King (whose nearest branch is some distance away in the station terminal), they did a better job at identifying the smell than me. It is burgers. First reports of the smell emerged on social media in early 2017, at the same time as Bleecker – a gourmet burger chain – opened premises on Buckingham Palace Road, directly over the underground station, and, more tellingly, the District line platform. The roast potatoes I have been smelling are, in fact, chips; the steak or dead rat, depending on your nose, a beef burger. 


To put it simply, the situation has arisen because the District line is a cut and cover line, which is to say that it was created by cutting a deep trench across London, and then covering it with roofing and structures, such as roads and buildings. It is not genuinely subterranean in the sense of its neighbour, the Victoria line. As such, at both the westbound and eastbound ends of the platform there is an exposed area, which, in this case, opens behind commercial premises. Simple.

Because I’m only an occasional visitor to the District Line platforms at Victoria, not to mention a meat eater and general enthusiast for fried goods, I have always enjoyed the smell and assumed that others felt the same. In reality, a lot of people think it smells not just bad, but unacceptably awful.

“The District Line is bad enough without it making your hair and clothes smell terrible,” says Jac, a District line commuter who has waged a one-woman war with TfL on Twitter over the issue. “Even if you are just on the train too near a door you can end up smelling like food for the rest of the day.”

Social media might amplify negative opinions, but there are quite a lot of people who agree with her. The smell has been branded “gross”, “horrendous” and “manky”, but it seems there’s nothing that can be done about it. A spokesperson from TfL told me that all the vents from local businesses and restaurants are legally compliant, and, given that the source is outside the station’s jurisdiction, there’s nothing else they can really comment on.

The basic problem is this: Bleecker ventilate by outputting smutty kitchen air, whilst Victoria ventilates by sucking fresh air down into the platform. The proximity of these two systems, brought together by incompetence rather than malice, means that neither party is culpable or responsible. In the end, it is, as Chris Christie might say, something of a nothing burger.

The air vent at Bleecker. Image: Nick Hilton.

Inside Bleecker, the old ventilation system has been repurposed and repainted into a hipster artefact. It might well be this exact pipe that is providing commuters with their olfactory curate’s egg.

Even though the chronology, geography and evidence of hundreds of noses point to Bleecker as the source, no one from Bleecker was available for comment, and it is impossible to entirely verify this solution without having terrorist-levels of access to the underground system. Either way, they’re unlikely to change this form of inadvertent viral marketing: as one former London Underground worker told me, “TfL could filter the shop vent, but that's a massive cost and pungent aromas are very hard to filter. They could filter their own vent, but again it may not be practical.” The only organisation which might make some headway over the stink are Westminster council, which confirmed it would investigate the situation.

For now, however, vegetarians ought to beware when exiting at Victoria. So long as Londoners maintain their enthusiasm for expensive, deep-fried fast food, the District line’s meaty stench isn’t going away.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.