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A generation of memories steam-cleaned off Seattle’s ‘gross’ but ‘beautiful’ Gum Wall

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Cleaners take down Seattle’s famous Gum Wall.

With a loud, hot burst of steam — 260 degrees Fahrenheit or so — a generation’s worth of history began oozing away early Tuesday.

A million pieces of chewed gum, along with the germs from a million mouths, some healthier than others. The brightly colored backdrop for countless photographs — selfies, wedding shots and, yes, even baby announcements.

The great Seattle Gum Wall began sliding down Post Alley, taking millions of memories along with it.

Two workers in white protective gear did the dirty deed, the first spraying hot steam onto the aged brick, the second scraping off softened gum with a rake. A generator hummed. Steam hissed and billowed. Clumps of gum fell with the soft patter of rain.

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A blast of stale mint filled the dark little alley in Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market, mingling with an unidentifiable fruit smell. History’s perfume, at least here.

“Awww,” proclaimed one passerby as Emerald City’s weirdest landmark began melting away. “Goodbye!”

Nostalgic fans began a bizarre pilgrimage more than a week before the Gum Wall’s demise. Kymberly Dempsey of nearby Snohomish, Wash., yanked her four children out of school early last Friday so they wouldn’t miss this critical moment in the life and times of Puget Sound.

Dempsey’s great-grandmother owned a Swedish bakery in Pike Place Market, long before the Gum Wall came into existence, and decades before chewing-gum makers switched from chicle, aka natural tree-sourced latex sap, to the synthetic rubber of today’s gum.

“I only do this for important events, like the Seahawks [Super Bowl championship] parade and the Gum Wall,” she said, after whipping a bottle of hand sanitizer out of her purse and handing it around to her children clad in Seahawks gear.

If you miss it, you’ll never get to see it again. It’s gross, but it’s also so colorful that it’s kind of beautiful.

Kymberly Dempsey

“If you miss it, you’ll never get to see it again,” Dempsey said. “It’s gross, but it’s also so colorful that it’s kind of beautiful.”

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The Gum Wall is a relative newcomer to the Seattle landscape, younger than the Space Needle and Pioneer Square; older than the Great Wheel, which ferries riders high over Puget Sound; about the same vintage as the Fremont Troll, another example of what people here consider to be public art.

It grew, as the story goes, out of boredom, with a splash of irreverence thrown in.

In the early 1990s, when lines for weekend improv shows at the Market Theater stretched down Post Alley long and late, theatergoers would affix their well-chewed gum to the brick wall outside the comedy venue.

For years, the once-wet wads clung to just a few square feet of the alley’s east wall. Then, said Mercedes Carrabba, social media spread, and so did the gum.

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Carrabba owns Ghost Alley Espresso, a hole-in-the-wall coffee joint overlooking what, until Tuesday, was about 1,000 square feet of fossilized gum that clung to both walls of Post Alley. Her parents are artists who sell their wares at Pike Place Market, and she has been a regular since she was 7 years old.

“The Gum Wall is a thing because of social media,” she said in the chilly hour before the cleaning crew went to work. “People post pictures of themselves here. It’s Instagram. It’s Facebook.

“There’s something sociological about it,” Carrabba insisted. “Everyone interacts. It’s not just taking a photo.”

Allison Hazen and Philip Prahst, transplants from the Midwest, swooped into the Gum Alley on an August day in 2012, a time of year when gum is at its goopiest. It was their wedding day, she trailed a long white gown, and they wanted to commemorate the moment with a backdrop of Hubba Bubba and Trident.

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It was a perfect moment. But they forgot one thing. The gum.

“We were walking down the ramp, and people started noticing us,” Hazen recounted. “They made us feel like royalty. They clapped and cheered, and the crowd parted. One lady stopped me. ‘Did you bring gum?’ She filled my hands up with all this white gum. It was so sweet of her.”

On Tuesday, the nostalgic crowds had all but disappeared as the cleaning crew set up. Two young women were the only ones wielding smartphones in the early morning darkness.

They came “to see what’s the last time for Gum Wall,” said Dayeon Lee, after posing before the soon-to-vanish landmark. “We are from South Korea. We are here to learn English.”

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“I have never been here,” added Jihyun Kim. “This is my first time. I hear the Gum Wall will be removed today.”

Actually, the process is expected to take several days, which could be longer than the newly cleaned brick of Post Alley will remain gum-free.

Leonard Garfield, executive director of Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry, said he would be watching the speed of the Gum Wall’s return as a barometer of this changing city’s soul.

“It went up. It’s coming down. It will go up again,” Garfield said. “If it doesn’t go up again, we can truly say Seattle has moved on to another phase of its history. I would be surprised if that happens. But we’ll have to keep our eyes open.”

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

Twitter: @marialaganga

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