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.

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.