December 3rd, 2015
If you’ve been to Seattle, chances are that you’ve visited Pike Place Market and if you’ve visited Pike Place Market, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ve come face-to-face with the Gum Wall. In case you’ve been spared this experience, the Gum Wall is exactly what it sounds like — a brick wall completely encrusted with chewing gum. It’s bizarre and wince-inducing enough to have become a genuine tourist attraction.
Or rather, it was, because the estimated 1.1 tons of gum was threatening the structural integrity of the century-plus old brick and mortar beneath. So it is that the wall, for the first time in its twenty-something lifespan, has been cleaned. It took three days of steaming and scraping, but at the end of it, the Gum Wall was just a wall. Briefly. Because Pike Place is quite happy to let the Gum Wall rise again, and the resurrection began as soon as the barricades came down.
I’ve passed the Gum Wall scores of times, and not once have I found the Gum Wall alone. Instead, there’s an inevitable gauntlet of camera-toting visitors, laughing and cringing as they witness and add to the spectacle.
Now, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Gum Wall, but whenever I do, I also find myself thinking about love locks. In case you’ve also been spared this, it’s the practice of couples snapping a padlock onto some suitable piece of the public landscape, typically a bridge rail, and then throwing away the key, typically into the river beneath. I’ll leave it to you to discern the symbolism.
This activity — which feels faddish but shows alarming stamina — typically traces its origin to Rome and a plot device from a 2006 novel by Federico Moccia. I am, however, suspicious of the dominant story, since I first saw a few scattered love locks on the Pont des Arts in Paris the year before. A decade later, Parisian authorities have removed forty-five tons of locks from the Pont des Arts, and I’ve seen them on the Brooklyn Bridge, so it seems that the fad has transitioned to something more enduring than (call me cynical) most of the romances it immortalizes.
I’m not quite sure why I associate these two phenomena. Perhaps it’s simply a visual correspondence, in that both are a kind of pointillist encrustation and that both are eyesores. But there’s something more. Both are concerned with leaving a mark that can be seen by one and all. In that way, it’s related to graffiti and the human impulse to demonstrate that we, or perhaps Kilroy, were here.
The first step in this chain of place-marking was, of course, cave painting. We started out in a rather egalitarian mode, in that there are children’s handprints in those caves, immortalized in places where adults must have raised children up to make their mark. But that gave way to the edifice complexes of an endless succession of kings, despots and capitalists. To uncomfortably paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of artfulness is long, but it bends towards kitsch.
The bridges bedeviled by love locks are both wonderful demonstrations of the public function of architecture; they uplift (literally and otherwise) the public to whom they are dedicated. But at the same time, they are great works, created by men who very clearly had designs on being considered great.
When our modern day Heloises and Abelards spring for a Chinese padlock, perhaps even with laser engraving, they are exiting the disposable anonymity of the poor and annexing part of the deathless works of the rich. Here, the locks seem to affirm, the power of love can overpower the works of the great men.
By comparison, the unsung masonry of the Gum Wall was the handiwork of anonymous craftsmen who built something decidedly ordinary. A century ago, the Pike Place Market was one of thousands of its kind, a market in the original sense of a place where the producers could bring their wares to find buyers. What’s more, the Gum Wall lurks in Post Alley, hidden away from the market’s more public face. In the steep topography of Seattle, the alley is a way to join the market to the waterfront, nothing more special than a rather awkward access road.
But it doesn’t look like that to 21st Century eyes. Instead, this is one of the most intriguing corners of this city, a mysterious and curious place that seems to grown into being by itself. How else to explain this narrow, curving, half-subterranean, cobblestoned — in short, medieval — apparition? It’s special, and I don’t think that it’s an accident that this became a place where people marked their passing, however puckishly.
If I had to theorize a unified field theory for gum walls and love locks, I’d lean towards the virtualization of human interactions. We may have watches that data-mine our bodies, have the ability to video chat from the summit of Everest or compare tweets from the Pope and the Caliphate, but each of these novelties — though they seem like a bit of magic at first — fade to mere tricks as the novelty wears thin. With vinyl music making a comeback and food looming large as a social signifier, corporeality is gaining a certain caché.
There may be something else it, too, a lower undercurrent, because both love locks and gum walls are a finger in the eye of propriety, or perhaps more accurately, property. It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that while human interactions dissolve into a pay-to-enter electronic ether, the physical world continues to metamorphose into a landscape that is gated, branded and fenced with very real paywalls. Whether or not any of us walk around feeling like victims of exclusion, that’s the pattern embossed into this century’s first dressing of wallpaper. You don’t need to be a French philosopher to detect it.
I was here — say the love-lockers and the gum-stickers, taking up real space in the real world — and there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing that is, without a diamond blade chop saw or a biohazard suit. It’s a low-grade sort of rebellion, though, either tooth-achingly sentimental or tooth-ache inducing, and all while delighting both makers of pot-metal padlocks and sellers of the oil refinery byproducts used to make the synthetic rubber which we call “chewing gum.” But, still.
Even though I prefer the Pont des Arts and the Brooklyn Bridge minus the “Tammy and Dave Forever” lock, I find myself sympathizing with the fundamental impulse. I exist, and my presence makes a mark on the world, however small. It’s enough to make you want to carve initials in the bark of a tree — with or without the heart.
Pike Place Gum Wall by Conrad Olson
Lock Locking on the Brooklyn Bridge by Rick Schwartz
Ponts des Arts Under Siege by Gary Craig
La Mort de Gum Wall by Alberto Cruz
Love Lock Breakup by Stephen Mallon / NYCDOT