Bubblegum Alley is a local tourist landmark in downtown San Luis Obispo, California, known for its accumulation of used bubble gum on the walls of an alley. It is a 15-foot (4.6 m) high and 70-foot (21 m) long alley lined with chewed gum left by passers-by. The landmark covers a stretch of 20 meters between 733 and 734 Higuera Street in downtown San Luis Obispo.
According to the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Business Improvement Association, the origin of the gum is "a little sketchy". Some historians believe that the tradition of the alley started after WWII as a San Luis Obispo High School graduating class event. Others believe it started in the late 1950s, as rivalry between San Luis Obispo High School and California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) students. By the 1970s, Bubblegum Alley was well established. When shop owners complained that it was "unsanitary and disgusting", the alley underwent a full cleaning. The gum graffiti survived two full cleanings in the 1970s. In 1996, the BIA unsuccessfully attempted to have another alley cleaning.
Throughout the years, San Luis Obispo's Bubblegum Alley has been featured on a number of television shows, news programs, and in newspapers around the world. Newspapers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have addressed the disgusts and delights of the gum wall visitors. Other newspaper articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan, the Times Union from Albany, New York, and The Guardian in the United Kingdom. KSBY Action 6 News did a story about the alleyway and broadcast it nationally. TV crews filmed the alley for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, That's Incredible!, Real People, and on PBS. MTV featured Bubblegum Alley in the show Call to Greatness. The crew picked Bubblegum Alley to film the episode on breaking the world record for largest bubblegum bubble. It featured record holder Susan "Chewsy Suzy" Williams, and at the end of the show a graphic was shown that said that while she was there she blew a 24-inch (610 mm) bubble, which was not shown on television. (Her record bubble, which was blown on national TV in 1996, was 23 inches.) ABC’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not also aired a story on October 14, 1984 about the alley. It was also featured on an episode of The Girls Next Door on E! and mentioned in an episode of "United States of Tara".
In chapter seventeen of the novel Mr. Monk On the Road by Lee Goldberg, Bubblegum Alley is mentioned, described, and forms the setting for Monk's discovery of a dead body. Bubblegum Alley is also mentioned throughout Megan McDonald's book "Judy Moody: Around the World in 8 and a Half Days".
"Weird Al" Yankovic name-checked Bubblegum Alley in his 1978 song "Take Me Down," an ode to San Luis Obispo.
Traditions and myths
An alleyway full of over-chewed, 40-year-old bubble gum sounds unpleasant, but contrary to that belief many have started their own gummy traditions to keep this alleyway a must-see. One obvious tradition is the different fraternity and sorority letters. Another tradition that might confuse someone unfamiliar with the area is the variety of numbers lining the walls. To most people they may seem like a random assortment of numbers, but to any Cal Poly student these numbers represent Week of Welcome (or WOW) numbers. WOW is the first week before school starts in the fall for incoming freshmen; each WOW group has a different number and the leaders of each group take their students to Bubblegum Alley to leave their first mark on the city. Some just stick their gum on the overloaded walls while others leave their group number.
Agreement whether these gum-covered walls should remain a part of quaint downtown San Luis Obispo has not been reached since its founding. While the town historian and some local politicians consider this alley to be an “eyesore”, the Chamber of Commerce lists it as a “special attraction”.
While some bubble with joy at the unique spectacle, others consider this spot to be a giant cleaning project that a select few are getting stuck with. The Telegram Tribune reported that Bill Hales, a local pub owner, pays for the alley to be steam-cleaned once a month. Jim Kilbride’s business, Natural Selection, is right beside the alley and he has to scrape chewed wads of gum off of his windows every Monday morning. Hales and Kilbride agree that it is not the gooey gum that bothers them, but rather the tendency of people to use the alley as a public restroom. There have been talks about lighting it, gating it, creating an entrance, and handing out hoses. So far, hoses have been handed out to store owners.
Store owners’ complaints concerning upkeep are countered by the argument that it increases foot traffic and business. Debrorah Holley, administrator of the Downtown Business Improvement Association, admits that despite the obvious problems it causes, it is nonetheless a landmark. This one-of-a-kind spectacle attracts tourists to the downtown, in such large numbers that there used to be a local radio station DJ that led people on bimonthly tours of the “Gum Alley gallery”. Gumball machines can be found in most stores nearby, benefiting from the alley's popularity, and most downtown businesses value the attraction.
The strength of the alley has been tested by objecting store owners, ecologically minded locals, scrapers, and even fire hoses. In 1985, firemen hosed down the sticky walls, but the gum-chewers proved to be more determined than ever and within the month fresh wads appeared on the wall and Bubblegum Alley once again prevailed. The red bricks that lie beneath this unusual mask have been hidden since the 1960s.
Some people in San Luis Obispo consider the wall a form of art, and sticking gum on a wall is to many locals a harmless act. One may see various brands of gum, including Bazooka, Winter Fresh, Doublemint and Orbit, lining the walls in an array of shapes, words and questionable designs. There are faces and flowers, fraternity and sorority letters, and "I love SLO" spelled out in different colors and sizes. A closer glance at the gum-infested wall will expose an abundance of objects, such as pennies and dimes, sticking out of the wall as eyes for gum faces. There are gum wrappers placed strategically to add to the designs, and occasionally someone will hang a condom from the wall in hopes to disgust passers-by, but mostly the alley is appropriate for all ages and encourages everyone’s creative contributions.
The Alley has inspired professional artists such as Matthew Hoffman. On the east end of the alley, up high on the north-facing wall, a giant self-portrait of Hoffman titled "Projectbubble Gum" is created entirely with bubble gum. The picture of the artist blowing a bubble required a tremendous amount of gum, which he was able to get with the help of the community. His theory is, "if an individual participates in their community they will earn an invested interest in their community. The community chewed the bubblegum, and many individuals [felt] as though they were a part of its creation. This instills a sense of stewardship in one’s community".Even the robotics Team 1717, featured in the book The New Cool (book), is depicted in neon blue gum.
"Projectbubble Gum" is the largest piece in the Alley and is higher up than most to ensure its survival.
Not only have gum-chewing artists been motivated by the alley; poets have been inspired by the gum walls as well. One Arroyo Grande poet who wishes to be known as “M” writes in defense of the Gum Alley. His poem was published in Don Pieper’s article "An Ode to Gum Alley":
We write our epitaphs on walls with gum,
And though it may be meaningless to some,
We have a symbol of our gummy youth,
Whose walls may not tell some glorious truth,
But eloquently speak of better times,
Of cruising, shopping sprees, and nursery rhymes.
If gum is all you see upon our wall,
Your mind is closed, your spirit shrunk and small,
Though memories of youth may never last,
Gum Alley is our present to our past.”—“M”, Arroyo Grande, Pieper, Don. "An Ode to Gum Alley." Telegram- Tribune 30, Apr 1986
- Gum Wall in Seattle
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