Bubblegum Alley

Bubblegum Alley

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.cite web |url= http://www.locallinks.com/bubblegum_alley.htm |title= Local Links BubbleGum Alley |accessdate=2007-05-07] It is a convert|15|ft|m|sing=on high and convert|70|ft|m|sing=on long alley which is lined with used bubble gum left by passers-by. The locally-created, "most-talked-about landmark" covers a stretch of 20 meters between 733 and 734 Higuera Street in downtown San Luis Obispo.cite web |url=http://radio.cbc.ca/programs/asithappens/entertainment/bubblegum.html |title=CBC Radio As it Happens, Entertainment: Bubblegum maddness |accessdate=2007-05-07]


According to the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Business Improvement Association, the history of who actually started this gum fiesta is "a little sketchy" ["Asked & Answered." New Times 11-18, Dec 1997:] . Some historians believe that the tradition of the Alley started after WWII as a San Luis Obispo High School graduating class event [Asquith, Shirley. "Gum Alley Tour." Tolosa Times December 1997:] .Others believe it to have started in the late 1950s as rivalry between San Luis High School and Cal Poly Students. As soon as the Poly students suspected that the High School was trying to out-do them on the gum walls, the college students stepped up their game and immediately became more creative, thus launching Bubblegum Alley ["Asked & Answered." New Times 11-18, Dec 1997:] . In any case, by the 1970’s Bubblegum Alley was well under way. When shop owners complained that it was "unsanitary and disgusting" [Wardlaw, Lee. Bubble Mania. Aladden Paperbacks, 1997 ] , the alley underwent a full cleaning. The gum graffiti survived two full cleanings in the 70’s ["Asked & Answered." New Times 11-18, Dec 1997:] but when, in 1996 the BIA attempted to have another full cleaning, it was not passed.


Over the years San Luis Obispo’s Bubblegum Alley has made national news by appearing 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 Manchester, United Kingdom. KSBY Action 6 News even did a story about the alleyway and broadcast it nationally. [Asquith, Shirley. "Gum Alley Tour." Tolosa Times December 1997:] Television shows have been extremely interested in Bubblegum Alley. TV crews filmed the alley for the Johnny Carson’s "Tonight Show", the "That’s Incredible" show, "Real People", and PBS [Wardlaw, Lee. Bubble Mania. Aladden Paperbacks, 1997 ] . MTV has also been to this SLO hotspot to film their show, "Call to Greatness". The show involves a bus full of “bad-asses” set out to break as many ridiculous records as possible.cite web|url=http://www.mtv.com/photos/?fid=1528388&photoID=1902715|title=MTV- Call to Greatness|accessdate=2007-05-03] The crew picked Bubblegum Alley to film the episode on breaking the world record for largest bubblegum bubble. It featured record holder Susan Mont"GUM"ery Williams, or as she's known in the business, "Chewsy Suzy," and at the end of the show a graphic was shown that said that while she was there she blew a convert|24|in|mm|sing=on bubble, which wasn't shown on TV (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 Oct 14, 1984 about the alley.

Traditions and Myths

An alleyway full of over-chewed, 40-year old bubblegum 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. The picture below of Phi Sigma Kappa’s is just one example of the many fraternity letters all around the Alley. Each year as new students rush, their goal is to out-do the last rushing classFact|date=September 2007. Many passers-by, who are unfamiliar with fraternity and sorority life, get confused about what the Greek letters stand for. 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 get creative and leave their actual group number; this explaining the seemingly random numbers all over the walls.

High School football teams have started their own tradition in Bubblegum Alley as well. When the opposing team comes to play the town's High School team, they go to the alley before the game and put a piece of gum on the wall for good luckFact|date=September 2007. This odd landmark comes with a legend of bad luck. An uncommon myth is that if one walks through the alleyway while chewing gum and does not stick the gum on a wall, bad luck will befall this person Fact|date=September 2007.

Not only is it thought that the alley carries luckFact|date=September 2007, but also signs of affection. On the walls of the Alley couples show their love for each other in the form of gum. While people enjoy expressing their Fraternity sign, WOW pride and affection for others on the walls, they make Bubblegum Alley an ever-changing landmark.

On December 21, 2007 the name of Deleon Robinson, a young, black, basketball player and Black Panthers member, was added to one of the two walls of Bubblegum Alley in remembrance of his departure to Apple Valley from San Luis Obispo.


In San Luis Obispo, college students, local politicians, tourists, civic leaders, store owners and the town historian all have one thing in common – an opinion concerning Bubblegum Alley. 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 local politicians consider this alley to be an “eyesore”, [Hillinger, Charles. "A Tacky Wall." Los Angeles Times. 17 June 79] the Chamber of Commerce lists it as a “special attraction”. [Johnson, John. Los Angeles Times 10 Oct 2000 ] .

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. [Lyons, Silas. "Getting Stuck with the Cleaning." Telegram Tribune. 3 Aug 96] 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 and that is where the anti-gum crusade stopped.

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 [Lyons, Silas. "Getting Stuck with the Cleaning." Telegram Tribune. 3 Aug 96] . 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”. [Hillinger, Charles. "A Tacky Wall." Los Angeles Times. 17 June 79] and 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 angry store owners, ecology-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. Within the month fresh wads appeared on the wall and Bubblegum Alley once again prevailed. The red bricks that lay beneath this unusual mask have been hidden since the 1960’s and will remain so until the next anti-gum crusade takes place.

As art

Some people in San Luis Obispo consider the wall a form of art and sticking gum on a wall, and to many locals is a harmless act. One may see various brands of gum: Bazooka, Winter Fresh, Double mint, 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, stick 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.

;Professional artistsThe Alley doesn’t only attract amateurs to paste their gum artwork on the wall; it has also 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 bubblegum. 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".cite web|url=http://www.newtimesslo.com/index.php?p=showarticle&id=2359|title= Yours, Mine, and Ours|accessdate=2007-05-03]

"Projectbubble Gum" is the largest piece in the Alley and is higher up than most to ensure its survival.

;PoetsNot 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 meaning less 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:]



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