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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Chewing Gum on a Sign 15 Feet Over the Street

Stuck on a sign hanging over Broadway, out of sight of the throngs of workers and visitors crowding the sidewalks and unnoticed by the drivers passing below, are a lot of pieces of chewing gum. There's a few stickers stuck on there too. While generally invisible to ordinary New Yorkers, it is a shared experience of the thousands of tourists who pass mere feet below the sign while seated on the top of a double-decker bus. Some of these tourists are the people sticking the gum on there.

There are a handful of places where people have collectively created a kind of grotesque landmark by sticking their chewing gum onto something. The old gum tree in South Philadelphia and more extravagently, the gum wall in Seattle, come to mind. Compared to those, this sign is thoroughly unremarkable. Yet it shares the same fledgling crowd dynamic. All these locations emerge because something prompts others to follow the example of that first person who deposited their gum in an inappropriate place. At first, others just take enough notice to take advantage of the opportunity to discard their stale gum, until it reaches a critical mass and presents itself as an invitation to join the fun. In this case, it's possible to identify how this sign developed into the early convenience phase.

On Park Row, there is a busy stop for the tour buses (the bus stop sign says it is for drop-off only, but it is a busy boarding location anyway). As new passengers hop on, the tour guides have to warn everyone to remain seated to avoid being struck by the signal lights and low-hanging signs. The buses start up and make a left turn onto Broadway, where this is the first of the signs hanging close overhead. Moreover, the signal progression results in the buses waiting for the red light at the end of that block; many of the buses come to a stop directly under the sign. These conditions make this particular sign easily accessible, and bringing it to their attention makes some of the passengers realize the the novelty of reaching something that would normally be out of reach.

So far, this sign has just accumulated a thick dotting of gum on its face. A few pieces of gum and a sticker have also found their way onto the back. It remains to be seen if it will continue to develop into something more sculptural with continued and accelerating additions... before the Department of Transportation notices and replaces it with a clean sign.

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