Philadelphia's Gum Tree Cut Down

Gum Tree

The gum tree on South Street in Philadelphia. Jordan/Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption Jordan/Flickr

For the first installment in a series on unlikely landmarks, the BPP talks to business owners on Philadelphia's South Street about what locals call the "gum tree." For years, it was a repository for chewed gum. But the neighborhood is sprucing up, and the tree has been cut down.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Let us now debut Unlikely Landmarks, our series on local monuments that were never supposed to be. I got to identify this: this is "Got a lot of living to do" from Bye Bye Birdie, the Herb Alpert version, isn't it? Thank you, wow. Today, the South Street gum tree in Philadelphia is our unlikely landmark. For decades, passers-by affixed their chewed Bubblicious and Juicy Fruit to tree outside a cheese steak joint creating a technicolor gummy mosaic all Philadelphians came to know if not love, and now it's gone. South Street is being renovated, and the trees have been uprooted. This unintentional monument among them. BPP producer and former Philadelphian Ian Chillag and I called up businesses near the tree to get some gum tree memories. Let's start with Young-Onn(ph) of Ishkabibbles. Hello, Young. You have the store right in front of where the gum tree used to be?

Mr. YOUNG-ONN (Ishkabibbles): Yes, sir.

PESCA: So, what - do you have any good gum tree memories?

Mr. ONN: Well, it was a very colorful gums all over on the tree. It's been fun.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. ONN: And we lost it.

PESCA: Losing the gum tree, has that hurt business at all?

Mr. ONN: No. I don't think it hurt any business. They're doing a lot of construction work on South Street, putting on a new street lighting and installing little smaller and nicer trees.

PESCA: Now, do you think that these little trees that they put up are - do you think they're going to get gummed?

Mr. ONN: I think so.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. ONN: I think people do have memories of it. I think we're going to have a little smaller version of a gum trees back. Definitely.

PESCA: And finally, have you ever stuck some gum on the gum tree? You could tell us, Young.

Mr. ONN: I stuck one. I stuck one myself. And one year, I just took all the gum, virtually every single gum off the tree just to see what happened.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. ONN: And within a couple of weeks I got most of the gums back.

PESCA: Thanks. Thanks very much for spending a little time with us. Sorry about your gum tree. Hope you get a new one.

Mr. ONN: You're welcome. Thanks a lot.

PESCA: OK.

Mr. ONN: Bye.

PESCA: Take care.

Mr. ONN: Bye-bye.

PESCA: That went well. Let's see.

CHILLAG: That did go well.

PESCA: That was good. That guy was more of a gum tree curator.

CHILLAG: Yeah.

PESCA: He tended to the gum tree.

CHILLAG: Yeah.

PESCA: You want to call another business?

CHILLAG: Sure. Let's try it Hats in the Bellfry. It's a hat store.

PESCA: Yeah. Hi. Is this Jem?

JEM (Caller): Yes.

PESCA: And is that J-E-M like a gem stone?

JEM: Yes.

PESCA: And what's your last name, Jem?

JEM: Omobego(ph).

CHILLAG: So, I remember the gum tree. I just heard it's been taken down. I'm really sad about that.

JEM: Yes.

CHILLAG: Do you share my - my feelings?

JEM: I do share your feelings. I'm not originally from Philadelphia, I'm from Delaware. So, as a child when we come up here we used to just always put our gum on the tree.

PESCA: How old were you when you came to Philadelphia as a little girl?

JEM: Seem to remember coming up here when I was still in elementary school.

PESCA: And how old are you now?

JEM: I'm 25.

PESCA: OK. So you've been sticking gum on a tree from almost 20 years.

JEM: Yes.

PESCA: Now, how old is the oldest gum on the tree would you say?

JEM: I would say an additional - probably like 10 years prior to when I first started.

PESCA: You know, we have some news for you, Jem. We'd just talked to the guy from Ishkabibbles, and he actually scraped the gum from the tree once.

CHILLAG: Or put to in another way, he took your memories and threw them away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: What did the tree smell like when you stood next to it?

JEM: Well, like a tree. This is Philadelphia. You're not going to have very distinct smell unless it's urine, horse poop and exhaust.

PESCA: I see. So to overcome the natural Philadelphia air...

JEM: Exactly, but have to be, you know, pretty intense.

CHILLAG: Thanks so much, Jem.

JEM: Oh, you're really welcome so much. You all have a great day.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

PESCA: Is this Copabanana?

Mr. ROB FRANKLIN (Caller): Yes, sir.

PESCA: So, what's your name?

Mr. FRANKLIN: My name is Rob.

PESCA: Rob, what's your last name? Could you tell us your last name.

Mr. FRANKLIN: Franklin.

PESCA: Franklin. OK. Good name from Philadelphia.

Mr. FRANKLIN: Yes, sir.

CHILLAG: So, I was very surprised to learn that the gum tree has been torn down. What did you think about that?

Mr. FRANKLIN: It was a bit upsetting because the memories of South Street, and the same was, you know, before you're going to store, you could take your cherry Juicy Fruit and put it on the tree and then when you come out you can grab some strawberry.

PESCA: Did you ever - did you ever use it that way?

Mr. FRANKLIN: Absolutely not.

PESCA: Any sort of planned memorial or planting a tree from the tree?

Mr. FRANKLIN: I guess the only memory of it is the one - the foot and a half piece that I got sitting in the corner of my apartment back wrap in shrink wrap.

PESCA: What?

Mr. FRANKLIN: Yeah, I saved a piece.

PESCA: How many pieces of gum were on your piece of tray?

Mr. FRANKLIN: There's got to be a 150.

CHILLAG: And I got to ask you, that seems like it's nice to have that memory now, but that piece of trees going to get nasty.

Mr. FRANKLIN: Yeah. Well, I got it wrapped in shrink wrap.

PESCA: That seems scientific.

Mr. FRANKLIN: So, you know.

PESCA: What if there's a future case scenario where the world is overrun by some foreign species and that's the only thing you have to eat, the gum from the gum tree. Would you eat that gum?

Mr. FRANKLIN: I don't know. I guess given the situation.

CHILLAG: Thank so much.

Mr. FRANKLIN: Hey, no problem. It was nice talking to you.

CHILLAG: OK. Take care.

Mr. FRANKLIN: Have a good day, buddy.

CHILLAG: Bye.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

CHILLAG: Hello?

Ms. AMANDA SYLVESTER(ph) (Caller): Hi.

CHILLAG: Hi. What's you name?

Ms. SYLVESTER: Amanda.

CHILLAG: What's your last name, Amanda?

Ms. SYLVESTER: Sylvester.

CHILLAG: OK. And we're calling you at Mineralistic.

Ms. SYLVESTER: Yup.

CHILLAG: Now, we talked to a guy at Ishkabibbles and he love the gum tree. How do you feel about the gum tree?

Ms. SYLVESTER: I really wasn't a fan of the gum tree because it was kind of a nuisance everyday, there'd be crowds of people in front of it taking photos, sticking their gum on there, and sanitary-wise, it really was not fun to look at everyday as I'm peering outside this door.

CHILLAG: So, you're a hundred percent happy to see it go?

Ms. SYLVESTER: Uhm, I wouldn't say a hundred percent happy, but I am glad it's gone.

PESCA: So what's the little pang of nostalgia if that's what the word is for...

Ms. SYLVESTER: I guess the fact that people really care that it's gone.

PESCA: Yeah.

Ms. SYLVESTER: The fact that they'd hang on to something like that, that's a tree, that's just covered in people's spit.

CHILLAG: Alright. Hey, thanks so much.

Ms. SYLVESTER: Have a great day.

CHILLAG: Bye bye.

Ms. SYLVESTER: Bye.

PESCA: Fare thee well, little gum tree. You stuck to the soul of everyone you came in contact with. If you want to check out a picture of the gum tree, or even a little piece of it, it's on our website npr.org/bryantpark. And this was the first in our series of Unlikely Landmarks. Things that weren't supposed to become monuments but somehow have, and everyone in the community has come to know and tolerate, possibly love them. If you have one of these unlikely landmarks in your hood let us know on our Blog.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

We've set a high bar here today with this initial entry.

PESCA: Yeah. It doesn't have to be disgusting, but if it is it'll get on for sure.

MARTIN: That does it for this hour of the Bryant Park Project. We don't go way online. We're there all the time, npr.org/bryantpark. My name is Rachel Martin.

PESCA: And I'm Mike Pesca. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

MARTIN: Happy Monday.

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