“You ever been around a chicken farm?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“The ammonia smell can bring tears to your eyes.”
We stood gazing at the cellar, our eyes watering.
But what about the cats? I said.
“The two smells are similar enough,” Gilbert said, breathing through his mouth. “Live poultry is my best guess.”
The Manhattan poultry trade sprang up in the late seventeenth century, when a cluster of markets opened shop along the southern tip of the island. By the nineteenth century, slaughterhouses had crawled uptown and were thriving along the Hudson River. Despite public concern about the stench, an ardent demand for meat kept the abattoirs in business. There were also reports of out-of-state dealers stuffing birds with sand, packing fowl in saltpeter, and rinsing slimy meat with chemical potions to give them a fresh appearance. Increases in regulation helped to cut down on health scares, but the city’s poultry trade remained uncommonly volatile. A trade war erupted in 1914, when one of the city’s most prominent poultry dealers was murdered by business rivals after being accused of fixing wholesale prices. The lengthy trial that ensued implicated a wide-ranging gang of chicken handlers—one of whom admitted to six assassination attempts on the victim, including once with a poisoned dagger—as well as a chicken inspector known as Kid Griffo.
By the sixties, most of Manhattan’s slaughterhouses had moved elsewhere, and of the 80 live-bird markets currently holding permits in the New York City area, only four are in Manhattan: two in Inwood, one in East Harlem, one in Morningside Heights. But expand your parameters into the outer boroughs and live-poultry markets become much easier to find. There are 28 licensed markets (and untold illegal ones) in Brooklyn alone. The customer base is divided unevenly between those who buy live animals out of habit and those who do so out of principle or curiosity. Carlo Formisano, the manager of La Pera Poultry in Brooklyn, estimates that 65 percent of his customers are immigrants, and the rest are “people coming in from what I call Yuppieland,” who began to trickle in four or five years ago. Keeping one’s own chickens is legal in New York City—and increasingly popular. Owen Taylor, the city farms program manager of Just Food, says his Meetup group for city chicken keepers has almost 500 members, a couple of whom raise the birds for meat. “That way they know what the chickens are being fed and how they’re treated, and they’re directly involved with the slaughtering process.”
The problem with poultry slaughterhouses, however, is that they are lousy places to work up an appetite for chicken. As the Times recently noted, a Greenpoint slaughterhouse abutting new condos has been defaced with graffiti that reads THIS PLACE STINKS. If the smell issuing from 284 Broome does in fact derive from chickens, it may be less a remnant of the city’s history than a harbinger of its future. Poultry raised and slaughtered within subway range could well be where a locavore’s bluff is called.
But could the tenant of 284 Broome, Yu & Qiang Trading Inc., be keeping live chickens even without a poultry-market permit? The State Department of Agriculture and Markets told me it was classified as a food warehouse, and according to the Department of Environment Protection, it passed its last inspection with no violations.
When I returned to the warehouse for the eighth time, it was empty except for a worker toodling around on a bike. The air was 84 degrees and smelled very bad. I asked the worker if his employer sold chickens.
“Chickens, yes,” he said, biking closer.
Ducks too? I asked.
The worker pedaled away without responding. I called the number listed on the building’s awning and was transferred to an English speaker. “No live poultry,” said the voice when I asked.
Is it fresh? I pressed.
There was a pause.
“I think,” he added, and hung up.
The fact-finding mission was not over. Concerned about the fuss I’d kicked up around 284 Broome, the Agriculture Department conducted an unannounced inspection last week. What they found, according to spokesperson Jessica Ziehm, was a big nothing: no live chickens and no evidence of live chickens. No live ducks, turkeys, pigeons, or any other kind of edible, respirating creature, either. The bad smell appeared to come from “stacked boxes of processed poultry sitting in the warmth.” Gross, but not illegal. Yu & Qiang Trading Inc. continues to enjoy a lively summer season, smell be damned. Chicken costs 93 cents a pound.