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D.C.’s grossest monument is sticking around.
Richard Hernandez may be a self-described country-boy hick, but the 15-year-old from Stafford, Kan., knew exactly what to do when he saw the little-leaf linden tree outside the house where Abraham Lincoln died on 10th Street NW. He took the big red wad of gum he’d been chewing and stuck it right on the trunk.
Not to be outdone, Chad Roush and Jeremiah Fiscus took powdery sticks of turquoise gum from their pockets and popped them into their mouths. As their tour group formed a line outside the national historic monument known as the Petersen House, the boys chewed until their gum went soft and gooey. And then they leaned over and stuck their wads on the tree, too.
The Gum Tree, as it is called by neighboring merchants and park rangers, is Washington’s latest Lincoln memorial. Though National Park Service Ranger Ricca Sarson says that the shrine was established by an anonymous youth sometime between March and July of 1997, the tree outside 514 10th St. NW can actually attribute its colorful look to the Park Service itself. Strict Park Service policy requires school tour groups to toss their gum before entering the Petersen House or the nearby Ford’s Theatre. And if you’re 14 and far from home, there is, apparently, nowhere better to ditch your gum than a big D.C. tree trunk.
The linden has since accrued a trunk full of heavily masticated gum. This past year, two more trees up the street have slowly become gum-covered as well. And what gum it is: Red, blue, orange, and yellow. Green, chartreuse, and turquoise. White and pink. Balled, stretched, stringy, and hardened. In short, a monument to Lincoln’s wild, diverse country. And that’s even before you notice that the tree has also been embedded with pennies bearing the profile of America’s 16th president, who bled out his life just up the stairs on the left.
“Awesome,” says Taren McWilliams, examining the oozy mass covering the tree’s bark. It still emits a faint bubblegummy odor. A group of teens in sweat shirts and braces has gathered around the eldest Gum Tree. They come, appropriately enough, from Lincoln Junior High School. They are making a visit to D.C. from San Angelo, Texas, before heading up to New York City.
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Not all of McWilliams’ classmates, though, treat the Gum Tree as another piece of big-city exotica. In fact, it appears that the basic concept—if not the fully realized execution—is well-known to the youth of America. “We tried to start one at our school, but it didn’t turn out,” says Cindy Halfmann, a 13-year-old with painted red nails and designer braces. “We had one at our school but it wasn’t near this bad.”
Halfmann’s school probably doesn’t have the traffic that 10th Street has. Ranger Jeff Leary says that between March and May of each year, Ford’s Theatre averages 7,000 to 10,000 kids per day. The Petersen House, meanwhile, gets “maybe 4,000 to 5,000 on a real busy day.” And each one of those kids, if a gum-chewer, has to spit out his gum before entering the sites.
“Every single year, we spend a lot of money cleaning the gum off our national historic sites and monuments,” says Leary. “Every single kid comes through here with a big wad of gum in his mouth. We wait until they get to the front door before we tell them to remove their gum, because we know if we tell them to do it down here [at the bottom of the steps], it’s gonna wind up on the trees.” A sign reading “Please, no food, drink, or gum,” has been posted at the top of the Petersen House stairs, right outside the front door.
Gum, in fact, is a huge problem for the downtown historic sites. Leary points to a trail of black blotches on the sidewalk, the steps of the Petersen House, and the carpet inside. The culprits: gum, gum, and, again, gum. The carpet will have to be replaced soon, he says, because of the gum stains.
The outer wall of Ford’s Theatre has also attracted its share of gum. Leary got so sick of it that he went across the street one day and scraped it off with a spatula. Now, only flat gum stains remain on the wall. “Tour guides point [the trees] out,” he complains. And before you know it, he says, the kids have encircled the trees to take pictures and mash more gum onto their bark.
“I think it’s disgusting. It’s gross. It’s very disgusting,” adds Leary. “But for me as a park ranger, it’s the tree, the poor tree….These trees will not survive if it continues. They probably won’t survive now….All that sugar attracts bugs, flies.”
Local vendors have mixed opinions about whether all those bugs and flies might chase off business. “I think it’s ugly. Gum should be in a trash can, not on a tree like that,” says Dan Tran of the Honest Abe T-shirt and souvenir stand by Ford’s Theatre.
But Young Sook, of P&D Souvenirs across the street, is more philosophical about the trees. After all, at least some of those kids who stop to photograph the Gum Tree wind up stopping in her store. Some of them might even come in for a pack of gum. “Children make the Gum Tree. Everybody likes this one. Everybody takes pictures,” says the vendor, who also sells film. But even she occasionally finds the trees objectionable. “[It] looks dirty,” she concedes.
You don’t have to be a Smithsonian folklorist to guess that those teens who arrive on 10th Street unaware of the Gum Tree idea will now take the concept back to their home states.
And at Park Service headquarters, the higher-ups aren’t amused by the notion of the Gum Tree as a piece of genuine American folk art, brought from the hinterlands to the metropolis before being disseminated to an even larger audience. The prospect of a nation full of Gum Trees, in fact, strikes fear into the hearts of Park Service officials—whose colleagues, after all, spend lots of time telling youngsters to get rid of their Hubba-Bubba before entering historic shrines, from the Statue of Liberty to Alcatraz.
Suzanne Kelley, site manager for Ford’s Theatre, worries that even talking about it will “validate the darn thing.” “They’re not on our property, and somebody just started sticking gum on them. It’s gross,” Kelley says of the Americana outside her door.
Officially, the Gum Trees belong to the District of Columbia. But, says Bill Beck, a horticulturist with the Trees and Landscape Division at the Department of Public Works (DPW), there’s not much the city can do for the encrusted trees.
“Apparently, there is some concern that they want them cut down, someone at Ford’s Theatre,” Beck says. “There’s nothing we can do. We can’t take the tree down because it’s a live tree….I believe the person who called me has something to do with Ford’s Theatre. They were talking about doing something. It was sometime back in January or February. He told me he was going to put something around the trees. I had no problem with that.”
Kelley says she called DPW about the trees last year and that they responded by coming out to paint over the gum. But the pale-gray paint served to mask the mottled mess for only a short time. Soon, the multihued medallions returned. “To be honest,” says Kelley, “I don’t know what they could do. It’s a tree. I don’t know if you could pick it off without injuring the bark. It’s D.C.’s sidewalk. My guess is that a fence big enough to protect the trees would block most of the sidewalk and the street. It would have to be bigger than an arm’s reach.”
The only solution, it seems, is to live with the trees and learn to love them. “I think it’s a great piece of artwork,” says Henry Lee, a passer-by who says he works in the area. “They put nickels and pennies up there and the homeless come and take dimes and nickels off. I’ve seen three, four dollars on the tree. I counted $3.60 one day,” he says. Lee doesn’t mention having counted the cigarette butts and candy wrappers also stuck to the gum.
Still, Lee has a final word of advice for admirers of Washington’s most democratically created public monument: “On a hot day, don’t lean up against the tree.” CP