The “gum wall” phenomenon began in the early 1990s, when people waiting in line to enter the Market Theater would stick gum on the wall as they waited in queue. By 1999, the Market accepted the wall as a tourist attraction and ceased trying to remove the colorful sticky spots. This year’s intensive cleaning was motivated by concerns of damage the gum may cause to the brick wall beneath.
Alone, the gum wall doesn’t really illustrate much other than a gross and “quirky” tourist tradition. But seen through a lens of lipstick, locks, and tourism, it illustrates an issue all cities seeking to woo tourism dollars should take into account.
For other examples, we look to Paris. In June of this year, the Pont des Arts – better known as the “Love Lock Bridge” – was cleared of its locks after they were deemed a public safety hazard. Beginning in the early 2000s, couples would attach a lock to the 200 year-old bridge and throw the key into the Seine as a token of romantic commitment. By 2015, the weight of the locks on the bridge was estimated to be 45 tons, endangering the bridge and river traffic below.
Barely two miles away from the Pont des Arts is Père Lachaise Cemetery. Home to notable historic burials and immeasurable architectural beauty, Père Lachaise has dealt with its own invented traditions for decades. The limestone sculpture which marks the burial of Irish author Oscar Wilde is a prime example.
For New Orleaneans, a lot of these seemingly unrelated local peccadilloes should sound very familiar.
Each is a small act executed by tourists involving an easy-to-come-by medium: gum, locks, or lipstick. Many of these things travelers already have in their possession. They each have a somewhat weak background story connecting the tradition to the lure or the romance of the place. They each involve a literal way for an individual to “make a mark” on a place visited - to take part in something larger than themselves. They each began or expanded drastically after the late 1990s.
All of these traditions have become part of travel-blog echo chambers which have fed the impression that the “tradition” is real and encouraged vandalism far beyond the useful life of click-bait entertainment. We would link to the hundreds of examples of “10 landmarks you must deface while in Paris,” but we work hard not to encourage that type of behavior.
For sixty years, New Orleans had its own invented tourist tradition with which to contend. Beginning with a tourist brochure in the mid-1940s, the presumed tomb of voodoo icon Marie Laveau was repeatedly marked in accordance with a contrived wish-making ritual. The majority of these marks were created with similar items to those found in Père Lachaise – lipstick and pens.
While invented traditions are nothing new, the population of visitors who are likely to participate in them has grown enough that their impact is becoming increasingly difficult to manage. In 2014, New Orleans joined its Parisian counterparts in combating harmful participatory vandalism. The paired efforts of removing vandalism from cemetery property and restricting access to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 resulted in a measurable decrease in tourist impact.
Like Paris, interventions are often costly and can compromise historic resources with the introduction of protective materials (for example, plexiglass is not historic). Intervention can also require an immense investment of resources which may be needed elsewhere.
In the moment, it is easy to perceive each incident of tourist “tradition” impact as isolated. Yet the recurrence of this phenomenon in tourism-driven economies proves they do not occur in a vacuum. Little research has been conducted that compares the similarities of such incidents from city to city, or the efficacy of treatment and prevention approaches.
New Orleans is unique in so many ways, yet it faces the same difficulties of impact-management and preservation as any other tourism-based economy. It is time to closely examine the impact of perceived “traditions” and other behavioral cues on the preservation of our historic resources. Otherwise, it will not be long before one lipstick kiss snowballs into another expensive debacle.