Steven Heller | Essays

The Designer As Gumshoe

Near Union Square on Fourteenth Street, photograph by Nicolas Heller.

During the Beatles' first U.S. tour in 1964, John Lennon marveled at how New York's sidewalks were paved with diamonds. He was referring, of course, to sparkling glassphalt — asphalt mixed with crushed glass routinely used to fortify the concrete. But I wonder whether he also saw the so-called street measles, those ugly black blotches that have long marred urban pavements. Actually, I've been seeing a lot more of them lately and if you live in any city (and look down to avoid eye contact as I do) you must have seen them too. But if you don't know what they are you might be surprised to learn that each splotch is a piece of chewed gum brazenly spit from pedestrians' mouths, then ground by hundreds of walking feet into black grout that forms into hardened viscous globs. To me this suggests that gum chewers are possibly filthier than cigarette smokers, whose butts, at least, can be easily swept up. Conversely, caked amebic gum spatter is extremely time consuming and costly to remove using "gum-busting" steam-cleaning machines. Yet my aim in this essay is not to raise mass consciousness about gum pollution.

Medical Building on Sixteenth Street between Fifth Avenue and Union Square West, photograph by Nicolas Heller.

Although discharging wads of goop on public walkways is truly disgusting (would you do this in your own home?) and arguably more dangerous than throwing banana peels on the sidewalk, I cannot support, as some have suggested, a ban on public gum chewing and its dubious disposal. Actually there are already ordinances on some municipal books from the days when chewing tobacco was in vogue that prohibits such wanton spitting, but enforcement is difficult at best. "Gum has been a problem since the beginning of time," proclaimed Mayor Joseph Vas, Mayor of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, about a splotch outbreak in his city. Now that the major gum producers have introduced upscale gum products — like Orbit, Eclipse, Carefree (though I've always been partial to Black Jack) — which has increased overall gum sales and advanced chewing over the past couple of years, the amount of splotches have exponentially increased (at least according to my unscientific survey), and in New York City the problem has consequently spread to almost every neighborhood.

Given its epidemic proportions, last year I decided to take a closer look at gum splat as a kind of social and visual phenomenon — a veritable vernacular street "language" — that speaks to certain behavioral patterns of city life. Over the past year, I've been something of a gumshoe, investigating and documenting these patterns, visiting devastated areas and talking to perpetrators and victims alike. Now I'm ready to share my findings.

Corner of Union Square and 15th Street, photograph by Nicolas Heller.

Just so you know, chewing gum has existed since the ancient Greeks chewed a substance made from the resin of a mastic tree. Subsequent gums were made from the sap of spruce trees as well as paraffin wax. Modern gum was extracted from Mexican chicle (remember Chiclets brand, I always wondered where the name came from); originally it used as a rubber substitute but was found to work better in a chewable form. Most gum companies currently use synthetics, although some still rely on natural glutamates. There are scores of different gum genres — bubble, medicated, breath-freshner, laxative, and more — and gum display shelves in candy stores and delis are filled with well over a score of different high- and low-end brands. Gum chewing is used to relieve stress, freshen the mouth, even clean teeth; its used to ease pressure when flying and even has certain cool panache — both macho and sensual. The likes of artists and musicians, but also police, firemen and plumbers seem to be frenetic chewers. Then, of course, kids are chewing machines (although most schools prohibit chewing in class, the bottoms of school desks are testament to how effective such rules really are).

Speaking of kids, my survey (which covered a geographical area between 23rd and Houston Streets in Manhattan) reveals that the largest concentration of gum goop is usually right outside public school entrances. It was in front of New York's "School for the Future" High School where I found a virtual Jackson Pollack of cement canvases filled with splotches so dense it could easily be compared to an Ad Reinhart — it is so black that the sidewalk is barely visible. The most intense of this particular splattering is located within five feet to the right or left of the entrance, which suggests that the students either dispose of their gum immediately before entering or after leaving (if the latter is true then they've been chewing for hours). I also checked the entrances to nearby Simon Baruch Junior High, P.S. 40, Washington Irving High, and a bit further away at Asher Levy Middle School, and the proportion of goop to sidewalk was also much denser than at other locales. Surprisingly, this was not true at private schools located in the same general radius. Friends Seminary, Immaculate Conception, Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School all had less gum buildup. To determine why this was true, I loitered outside of a few of these schools for a few hours at a time recording students' habits. Those in the public schools did indeed spit more than private school students. When I asked a few kids for rationales, I was told to mind my own business. I had to find another way. So I decided to focus on "adult" areas.

Entrance of "School of the Future," 22nd Street and Irving Place, photograph by Nicolas Heller.

Lower Fifth Avenue has a high occurrence of gum stains: not as bad as the infestation around schools but enough to raise eyebrows. In the five blocks either to the north or south of the AIGA national headquarters on 21st Street and Fifth Avenue, the density was much greater than around nearby Madison Square Park. These admittedly random patterns of splotches also seem also to be better designed in front of AIGA than elsewhere in the vicinity, but this could just be my imagination. The fundamental reason for this "distinct occurrence pattern" (a term I apply to formations of goop) is that Fifth Avenue is a highly congested street during weekdays, with many offices housing music, fashion, design and other creative industries — all full of potentially very-stressed gum chewers — so in addition to stains in front of building entrances, it's possible to trace a gum line from office buildings to various popular lunchtime eateries, with fast-food delis having the largest concentration of stains outside their doors. Madison Park is where people go to eat lunch or sit calmly watching birds, which reduces the need to nervously chew. In addition, on the weekends Fifth Avenue gets a large "tunnel" crowd from New Jersey, which for reasons best left vague, have the highest sidewalk gum-spitting ratio in the region. After nailing why Fifth was the way it was, I moved east.

Over the past decade Union Square has been strikingly transformed — the park is beautiful and the five-day-a-week farmer's market has raised the energy level of the entire area. In addition to New York's usual park denizens, it is Mecca for many young professionals and hip Eurotrash, and, because of this demographic, gum goop prevails at least on the perimeter of the park, while inside there is limited coverage because of what appears to be a rapid cleanup force, made up, oddly enough, by gum chewers. Conversely the sidewalks where skateboarders hang-ten and itinerant musicians place their hats is fairly dense with goop. It also appears that the average customer for the Virgin Mega Store and Circuit City, which faces the park, does a good share of the area's daily chewing (I speculate five sticks of Winterfresh every two hours, if my 18-year old son is an indication).

After time well spent in Union Square, I was ready to head uptown to the more swanky New York neighborhoods — Turtle Bay, Murray Hill and Sutton Place — where splotches were noticeable but in considerably lesser quantities. What was on the ground was put there, apparently, not by residents but interlopers. Since these neighborhoods do not have a lot of retail traffic the volume of interloping is keep to a minimum, in fact, I was looked upon with suspicion. So when I asked a randomly selected Murray Hill pedestrian why he thought there was so little gum goop in the neighborhood, I was told to mind my own business. Maybe I should not have been chewing when I spoke.

In any case, my exhaustive survey turned up the following results: Gum splatter is disgusting. Kids who have no respect for their environment do it to excess. Adults who work in stressful industries chew too much and potentially spit it on the sidewalk, unless they live on Sutton Place. John Lennon chewed a lot of gum, but to my knowledge he never spit a wad on a New York City street.

Fifth Avenue and 19th Street, photograph by Nicolas Heller.

Posted in: Social Good

Comments [32]

It might be interesting for you to know that in Sweden the sidewalks are black which means you can rarely see the chewed blobs.
This means that, apart from the environmental side of it which I think disappears in the shadow of other issues in that department, nobody is really bothered by gum on the street in Sweden.
Peter Sjöberg

Moving things into the 3-D realm... ABC gum sculptures can be found in every amusement park and water park across the country. Much like impressive and giant melted wax votives that seem to grow and layer over time, I've seen wooden telephone poles dotted with pink and white so thick and so deep it begins to echo a type of archaic written language.
Jessica Gladstone

The old King Kong ride at Universal Studios in Orlando was set in "contemporary" New York. When I was there I remember being stunned when I noticed they had painted all the gum stains on the (fake) sidewalks. It actually contributed quite a bit to the (admittedly disgusting) illusion.
Michael Bierut

I personally find gum chewing a repugnant habit, and almost never do it. After the vary rare indulgence in this habit, I always remember what my Mom taught me as a child. When you are finished with your gum, you wrap in in a little piece of paper--possibly the original wrapper which you have carefully saved for just such a purpose--and you put the wrapped up wad in a trash can. I might also add that my Mom carried, in her purse, a small metal ashtray with a snap-on lid. That way, if she had a smoke when no ahstray or trash can was handy, she could save her disgusting used butts and later dispose of them properly.

I think these polite behaviors are all about courtesy and respect for others, and I'm glad my mom taught me them. I cannot possibly imagine why anyone would throw out gum where another person might step on it!

But, then I think: Is it any wonder that I ended up in the perfectionistic (some would say "anal retentive") profession of design?
Rob Henning

Eye, landrats, there be dirtier places offshore.

Dat Deck weur vun Isen, Vull Schiet uns vull Schmeer.
To my ho dae! To my ho dae!
"Rein Schipp" weur den Käpten Sin grötstet Pläseer.
To my ho dae ho dae ho ho ho ho!
Blow boys blow for Californio...
random poster

Here's a creative take on chewing gums on the sidewalk:
Peter Sjöberg

For an alternate look at "gum goop" read Night of the Ground Stars by J. Morrison.

(And as Mr. Henning has pointed out, proper gum-chewing etiquette calls for keeping your wrapper in pocket for when you're done. Jeez!)

Joe Moran

This post reminded me of a project that Stacy Asher, a professor at Ohio University championed. Over the course of one night, Ms. Asher and a group of volunteer students painted all of the gum wads a bright pink. The results of her efforts and a much more cohesive explanation can be found at

Jim Thomas

Also documenting Stacy Asher's pink dot experiment is her blog:

Ryan Kindinger

Finally, someone else who is in awe of the number of gum spots in the city! I've always thought it was incredible, how can there be that many...I almost second-guessed myself into believing that some of them were tar stains. And, knowing myself how irritating in can be to step in gum or find it hiding somewhere, I always make it a point to spit my gum back in its wrapper and throw it in a trash can (which my friends find amusing). That's interesting that the sidewalks in Sweden are black, perhaps that's why the newer subway cars here have dark, mottled floor patterns—so you can't see the muck. Oh well, we can't all be like Singapore!
Swathi Ghanta

Wonderful Steven. As you might surmise after checking out the link Joe Moran so kindly supplied I have given these a lot of thought myself. Casting an even semi-serious light on the ugly/unloved/disregarded bits of our visual landscape is, to my mind, of the greatest importance. Happens to be a lot of fun as well. For me, personally, it's gratifying to see an altogether different take on the subject. So Kudos.
Jaime Morrison

Wow. I had noticed this to a certian extent in Minneapolis and St Paul, but New York looks to be in the grip of an epidemic. Roads. Pollution. Graffiti. It's just another mark left on the world by humans. I'm actually rather indifferent to it, as long as it's not sticking to my shoe.

I'm waiting for the sidewalk-gum-google-map-mash-up. It can't be too far down the road.

I have been noting the momentos left behind since I saw the Dirty Jobs episode where Mike cleaned gum off the streets. It is quite amazing to see, and also more than a little disgusting.
Disgruntled Designer

Every time my brother-in-law visits us here in NY, he is baffled by the gum spots. Invariably, he extols at his wife, "See those?! Those are fucking gum that people spit and then they step on it! Do you know how long those have been there?!" I chuckle every time. In Mexico, in the middle of a posh neighborhood there is a 10-feet-tall, 20-feet-wide wall that is covered in gum that people stick on it when they have to slow down for the speed bump. It's quite beautiful actually.

After living in Chicago for 3+ years and coming here, it's amazing how pretty they can keep their streets. They are pretty spotless. Not all of them of course.

Thank you, Andy Rooney.

For a long time I've been trying to find a mathematician who can help create an equation that would tell us how long it would take for a given square of Manhattan sidewalk to be completely occluded with gum. Lots and lots of variables! And I think it would end being like Zeno's paradox: statistically impossible or improbably to actually get that last bit of clean sidewalk.
D Brown

apologies if this is old news but this posting reminded me of this.


the posting got me thinking in lots of different directions. too many maybe to waffle on about here and sound sensical. but thing that always amuses me is to think of the gum busters going through training. gum is just perfect, in so many ways, at least to my mind, to paraphrase, in a gum like way, modern life.

Jackson Pollock, BTW.

see that was one of the many avenues i was thinking of. pollack, cod replacement. ever read asterix when you are slapped in face in with a fish?

apologies for trashing this post. im drunk on gum. youll hear no more from/of me. tata. (didnt think i was trashing it at time- on reflection I see it)

You know, it's funny, I just moved to San Francisco from New York, and the lack of gum-splatter was one of the first things I noticed and, admittedly, missed. Like the midnight rats in Washington Square, I think it contributes to a kind of gritty, unnatural cohabitation aesthetic that for me is essential to New York in setting it apart from other cities. It's the dualism of the town that makes me adore it. Turning the corner on 57th and Fifth wouldn't make me nearly as happy without the overcrowded gum-covered streets in the foreground and the leisurely promise of Central Park off in the distance. To put is bluntly, without abject desolation, an oasis would just be a tiny forest.

and this is weak, is concrete poetry the hardest thing ever?

Each disturbance opens the possibility for new interpretations. Witness the work of Ben Wilson, who has been painting gum in Barnet (North London) for some years now. There is a flickr site hosting some images here.

ok. im going to bite. this is what drives me nuts. its all the lingo. im all for specifics=specifity but im not into exclusivity. there is something precious about self awareness. ive no idea why but im drawn to blake. and the thing that annoys me most is my own ignorance as to why.


Stephen, your images were very insightful. Although I wonder if the frequency of gum blobs gets higher as you get closer to and edge (edge of a building, the curb, etc).

There's a theme-park in Toronto that has a gum wall also, and the lineup for the ride is so long, that people feel obliged to leave their mark on it while looking for the piece they affixed to the wall in years past.
Edrea Lita

This summer, while living in Toronto, I came upon this oddity:


I wondered who would actually think to use this device and whether there would be any point in a gum-specific disposal unit when Toronto has garbage and recycling stations at almost every downtown intersection.
Tom Froese

I would like to offer a different opinion on the gum spots: I like them. I think that if you had to come up with a program to decorate every sidewalk in New York, avoiding any interference to pedestrians, making every block unique, involving the public, and spending no money to do so, you could not come up with a better way.

It seems that people are put off by gum spots because they are put off by the ingredients: gum and grime (plus a some good old fashioned foot-stomping). But the product of this nasty-sounding recipe is an object of surprisingly pure material qualities. All those sticky, slimy, pink balls have become smooth, silky, black pancakes. At worst they are benign, but at best they add decoration and variety to our sidewalks - each gum spot forms its own approximation of a circle, and each collection of gum spots forms its own pattern. To me, they are as harmless as freckles.
Owen Detlor

Glad i'm a smoker. Great read.

Fun post.

There are some wonderful chewing-gum paintings by artist Adam McEwan here.
Rob Giampietro

Wikipedia entry on the now famous 'Singapore chewing gum ban'.


Interestingly it mentions that researchers at the University of Illinois, have been experimenting with replacing part of the gum base with biodegradable zein.

I can see it now "NEW Wrigglies Biodegradable Zein (with teeth whitening)"


New Yorkers may not realize this, but this is a New York-specific problem (if you even consider it a problem -- maybe you regard squashed, dirty gum as romantic and "gritty," like those charming rats building cities in the subway stations).
I recently moved from NY to DC and this city is so much cleaner it's incomparable. Very little gum splats, and zero in the subway. Why? Because people are paid to clean it up. Imagine that.
Why the richest city in the world (NY) chooses to let their streets, sidewalks, and subways become thick with filth and neglect has always been a mystery to me.
I always thought a great experiment would be to carbon-date some gum splat from the subway platform. How old is it, anyway? I've never seen any effort to clean it up, so is it 10 years old, 40, 100? Woudn't it be fun to know?

This is an interesting observation, I like the randomness. I have spotted something similar but with bottle tops in Berlin. See here
Dominic Wilcox

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