Here’s a riddle: What has at least 32 different flavors, but absolutely no taste? For the answer, you must journey to the heart of San Luis Obispo, in the shadow of the city’s historic old mission. Emerald-green hills surround you. Wander past tranquil San Luis Creek and turn down tree-lined and shopper-friendly Higuera Street. Until suddenly your nose crinkles, as if someone had just offered you a whiff of spoiled milk. That pungent odor is your official welcome to our venerable, though clearly bizarre, tourist mecca: Bubble Gum Alley.
There it stands: an entire alley adorned with thousands of pieces of used, grimy bubble gum, each carefully stuck with pride. Both walks explode with a rainbow of colors, creating an odd mosaic of local graffiti. Pink. Green. Blue. Yellow. Black. Red. Orange. White. Purple. Gum Alley, as the locals call it, sports more colors than Dennis Rodman’s hair.
Gum Alley is a sticky issue in San Luis Obispo. The place has been a local shrine for more than 50 years, drawing hordes of tourists with a carefully cultivated strategy of “Chew it, and they will come.” An attempt to close the alley about 17 years ago failed because of public outcry.
Defenders are quick to point out, for example, that comedian Weird Al Yankovic, a Cal Poly graduate, liked to sit in Gum Alley for inspiration. But those defenders mainly are folks who don’t like tampering with tradition. Any tradition.
Then there are those like me, who wonder why a city that boasts a performing arts center, a world-class summer classical music festival, and some of California’s best wineries needs a saliva-soaked cesspool as a point of civic pride. In an age when we are constantly warned about the dangers of exchanging bodily fluids, Gum Alley continues to thrive. Go figure.
My friend, historian Loren Nicholson, chuckles whenever Gum Alley is mentioned. The retired Cal Poly journalism professor traces the site back to another time, another generation. “Gum Alley was a’60s phenomenon for San Luis Obispo,” Nicholson says. “A few kids with nothing to do started putting their gum on a wall and it caught on. Back then, this city was pretty much a cultural wasteland. Gum Alley fit what this place used to be.”
San Luis Obispo historically has been viewed as a sleepy little cow town by tourists who breeze through just long enough for a Kodak moment. Gum Alley speaks to that image, reflecting the Norman Rockwell innocence of another era. But the town has gradually eased into a more sophisticated place, attracting major chain retail stores downtown. Yet the eyesore of Gum Alley continues.
Linnaea Phillips used to own a popular coffeehouse near the alley and she is digusted by the spot, but Phillips also understands the importance of what’s happening. “Gum Alley is a place for people to go and mark their territory,” she argues. “You get to be part of the place. How else can you do that? You can own land, own a house. Or you can put up this form of graffiti that gives you some sense of personal identity.”
San Luis Obispo seems stuck on keeping Gum Alley around. There’s talk of a community mural eventually being erected on these hallowed walls, but tradition dies hard around here. We may have become a full-blown cappuccino town complete with a half-dozen Starbucks, but most locals seem to enjoy the unique flavor of Bubble Gum Alley. When it comes to our gum, we’re definitely stuck-up.
San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune (1997)