The curiosity about shoes hanging on power lines is practically ubiquitous. Our questioner, Matt Latourette, saw them all the time growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Chicago’s Belmont Central neighborhood. And even though he doesn’t see as many dangling shoes around neighborhoods today, that didn’t stop him from tapping into a sort of collective curious-consciousness and asking about one of the biggest urban mysteries that lurks in the minds of city-dwellers and suburbanites alike:
What’s with all the gym shoes hanging from power lines?
Strangely enough, the city actually keeps track of how many pairs of Chicago shoes get hauled over electric or telephone wires. We learned that in the last seven years, city workers have received at least 6,000 requests to remove shoes hanging from telephone or electrical wires. (Similar requests, by the way, have sought to remove everything from a pair of hanging cowboy boots to a stranded rubber ducky.)
Clearly, gym-shoes hanging on a wire is something that happens. But getting to the bottom of why — that proved difficult. Despite Reddit threads, a Snopes article citing “no one definitive answer” to shoe-throwing, and even a mini-documentary about shoe tossing across the globe, at first all we found were whole lot of theories. But, we were able to turn up enough first-hand accounts and interviews with community leaders, gang members and sociologists to tease out some of the basic theories.
Among those theories: Shoes are tossed on account of losing a bet or taunting a victim or, from kids just being silly. In a more serious vein, people said the shoes signify where to buy drugs; they memorialize victims of gun violence; or they represent a crew marking their block.
Theory 1: The Taunt
Let’s start with a theory confirmed by an unidentified WBEZ listener who dialed the Curious City hotline and told his own story of shoe-throwing in his youth, which was spent in Cleveland, Ohio.
I think I was 14. It was about 1970, and I was wearing my gym shoes around my neck tied together by the laces. A friend of mine, who was perhaps not the best friend in the world, liked to taunt me to some extent. And he was throwing my shoes up in the air pretending, I think, that he was going to throw them over the wire across the street. But then he succeeded. And there they hung. Eventually, some time later that month, the shoestring broke and I got my shoes back.
Theory 2: The Lost Bet
The wager theory is common across the Internet, too. WBEZ listener Juan Molina dialed us, saying that’s how he encountered the phenomenon.
I lost a bet and my buddies throw my shoes up there. So, pretty much what they did was climb it — a pole — and threw it up there. Other times we threw it from the street until they got caught. … We tied the laces together and threw it up.
On his message, Molina gave us another reason: spite.
I did it once because I survived soccer camp. … I did not want to go to soccer. It was something my parents forced and I ended up throwing it up there. Those were just regular Nike cleats.
Theory 3: Gang or Crew Territory
Theory 4: Drug Territory or Sales
A disappearing mystery?
Along with the myriad stories about exactly what shoes on power lines mean, we uncovered some interesting data. According to Mike Claffey, a City of Chicago spokesman, requests for removing shoes from power lines have dropped by 71 percent between 2008 and 2014. This year, as of June, the city has received only 111 requests to remove shoes from power lines, compared to more than 1,100 in 2008. When we pulled similar data from all the 311 calls requesting to have shoes removed, it showed the same trend, with the concentration of the requests coming from the South and West sides with a pocket in the far northeast of the city, around Rogers Park.
I also spoke with ComEd, who maintains power lines in Chicago alleys. (The city maintains the streets.) A spokeswoman, Liz Keating, told me that while ComEd doesn’t keep records of the shoes they take down, anecdotally their technicians notice few on the North Side of the city and far more one the South Side.
It’s worth noting that Aspholm said he believes the reason theories around shoe-throwing so often veer toward gangs and drugs and territory issues, are because there is overlap.
“A lot of times these types of activities take place in marginalized urban areas,” Aspholm said. He added that these neighborhoods are often host to “open air drug markets, people being killed and shoes going up on telephone wires. …I think it’s within that wider urban milieu that these types of events take place.”
Maybe Aspholm is right. Maybe the reason behind shoe-tossing is just this simple: a coming of age story of inner city youth, colored by its own regional quirks and mixed up in the larger urban milieu of gangs, drugs and violence. Any particular pair of shoes could be up there for a variety of reasons, though it’s probably not a place to buy drugs.
And so, we may keep trying to explain sneakers hanging from power lines. But if the data proves anything, this looming question, the mystery of why and how sneakers arrive on power lines, is becoming a mystery of the past.
About our questioner
Matt Latourette, 43, was shocked when we read him the raw numbers of shoe removals: more than 6,000 over the past seven years.
“It’s amazing that there were that many taken down!” he exclaimed.
Still, as a kid, he said he saw them all over the city.
Today, Matt lives in Aurora, and rarely sees shoes hanging anywhere since their power lines are underground.
“I don’t know if I am just not there enough or they are actively taking them down. Or if it’s an old thing that just isn’t done anymore,” he said. “It’s just interesting that everyone is aware of it.”
But back in his old neighborhood, it was a different story.
“I noticed it all over the city and it was just something that was stuck in my mind. I was always wondering why,” he said.
He, too, had heard all rumors about what the shoes meant: drug dealing, bullying, kids being bored. But since he had never tossed his shoes, and didn’t know anyone who had, he never learned firsthand why people had done it.
It was always a looming question, he said, shrouded in urban legends.
Meribah Knight is a freelance journalist in Chicago and reports for WBEZ’s Curious City. Follow her at meribahknight.com and on Twitter at @meribah.