This episode of the See America Podcast was hosted by Jason Epperson and written by Abigail Trabue.
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Overlooking the Elliott Bay waterfront in Seattle, Washington sits one of the oldest continuously operating farmers’ markets in the united states – the 112-year-old Pike Place Market, where small farmers, craftspeople and merchants hawk their wares. Named after its main thoroughfare, Pike Place boasts more than 10 million visitors annually.
It’s the 33rd most visited tourist attraction in the world, and for good reason. Here, you’ll find fishmongers at the Pike Place Fish Market, whose employees throw three-foot salmon across the stall to each other rather than passing them by hand. You’ll find the first Starbucks, a bronze cast piggy bank named Rachel that weighs 550 pounds and brings in about $9000 a year. Buskers of all sorts pepper the air with Seattle’s finest music, and at the Market Theater, Seattle’s longest-running improv, Unexpected Productions, performs. It’s here, on the walls outside the theater, where you’ll find one of the weirder attractions in the world.
From the thriving food and drink scene to eclectic attractions to art and artists, there’s no shortage of things-to-do in the bustling Pike Place Market, and that includes taking in the site and, yes, the smell of the Gum Wall. This hidden piece of art, filled with colorful pieces of chewing gum, has been the subject of countless photos, wedding proposals, art-within-art sculpture and so much more, drawing visitors daily and inviting them to add their own recently chewed wad to the wall. Like the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, that kicked off season one of our show, the almost 30-year-old gum wall is an ever-changing piece of art, kept alive by the people who visit. But how did it get there?
In 1993, college students waiting in line for an improv show at the Market Theater began sticking their gum to the wall, and piece by piece it grew to become a living art installation.
Twice theater workers scraped the gum away from the box office window and surrounding area, but in 1999 any attempt at cleaning ceased when Market officials deemed the location a tourist attraction. Today, it spans 15-feet-in height, 50-feet in length, and in some places, it’s inches thick.
As the gum wall grew, so did the accompanying smell. An unusual stench of used decaying gum greets visitors, and in the summer, the stench can become almost unbearable as hot days heat up the long expanse of colorful gum in a narrow alleyway. It is, oddly enough, just one of the many things that attract visitors year after year.
In 2009, Trip Advisor named the gum wall one of the top 5 germiest tourist attractions, second only to the Blarney Stone, – the Irish stone kissed by hundreds of thousands of people every year for good luck.
But not everything about the gum wall is pungent and germ related. Every year numerous couples celebrate their special day with wedding photos taken in front of the colorful wall. The popular Park Place Market Ghost Tour starts at the wall, and a scene from Jennifer Aniston’s “Love Happens” was shot at the gum wall, which consequently increased the tourist traffic to the famed local spot.
The Wall of Gum also holds hidden secrets. Smaller art pieces inside the bigger one such as peace signs, words of love, smiley faces, and more can be found throughout, lingering only for a brief while until another artist comes along with more gum.
For some, it is a place that glorifies litter. For others, it is a piece of imaginative beauty. And for Governor Jay Inslee, it is his “favorite thing about Seattle you can’t find anywhere else.”
On November 3, 2015, the Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority announced that for the first time in 20 years, the gum wall would receive a total scrub down. For three days, they pressure-washed, scraped, and cleaned over 2,350 pounds of gum from the bricks. It took 130 hours and 94 buckets.
Almost as soon as the alley re-opened, locals and tourists collectively started to recreate the wall. Just days before, a coordinated terrorist attack killed 130 people at different venues in Paris, France. In perhaps the most Seattle thing ever, a flash mob began the gum wall again. The group created a colorful peace sign with the Eiffel tower in the middle. The wall hasn’t been cleaned since, but it’s certainly grown to its former glory.
For 40 years, Lee Lauckhart’s Newsstand has been selling newspapers and magazines to visitors, and since the gum wall was created, packs of Hubba Bubba bubble gum at $2 apiece. It takes just about the length of the walk from the stand down the ramp to the wall to chew it up for prime sticking power.
For the past 13 years, Lauckhart hasn’t collected a paycheck. He’s been living on his Social Security while still paying his employees $15 an hour – well before it became the state minimum wage. He also provides health benefits, even if the employee only worked one shift a week. But people don’t read as many magazines and newspapers anymore. Lauckhart once carried over 2,000 publications, but now, there’s only about 350. The business model just isn’t sustainable anymore, and First and Pike News will close on December 31st.
If you want to see the colorful gum wall for yourself, make your way to the Pike Place Market’s main entrance. Once there, head down a ramp to the left. At the bottom of the ramp, veer left into Post Alley and the Gum Wall will appear on both sides.
After you’ve checked out the wall, make sure to check out Unexpected Productions improv shows. Tickets range from $5-$15, and at last check, there were over ten shows a week on the calendar, including their longest-running show – Seattle Theatresports – a short-form improv show based on audience suggestions.
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