Sneakers on Power Lines

Shoefiti: Are sneakers dangling from power lines a symbol of gang activity?

Graffiti and hanging shoes
Gautam Narang/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

You see them in most American cities, large and small, and I suspect everyone who encounters them wonders the same thing: Who tosses all those old, tied-together pairs of sneakers onto power lines and telephone wires, and why?

I'll admit up front that I don't have a definitive answer. No one does. Like most people, I've noticed shoes dangling from utility lines virtually everywhere I've lived. I used to assume it had just been done in fun, or that the shoes were simply artifacts of one of those adolescent male challenges or rites of passage many of us end up party to in our youth.

But then, I didn't grow up in gang territory. Did you?

Popular Beliefs About Shoe Tossing

It is popularly believed that sneakers hanging from utility wires are there to designate "gang territory," or a location where one can buy street drugs, but neither of those explanations would seem to apply to the hefty percentage of shoes one sees dangling over low-crime neighborhoods and quiet streets in rural towns where there's little or no gang or drug activity to be found.

Another folk belief holds that teenage boys who've just "scored" for the first time — i.e., lost their virginity — are wont to heave an old pair of sneakers over a power line to celebrate the moment and proclaim their conquest to the world (who says teenage boys aren't romantic?).

"Straight Dope" columnist Cecil Adams catalogued at least a dozen more theories in a 1996 article, all of them very interesting but inconclusive. The long and short of it is that everyone seems to have a theory about why there are sneakers on power lines, but nobody really knows the answer.

Maybe there isn't an answer. Maybe dangling sneakers don't have any particular meaning at all.

Police: "This Is Another Kind of Urban Myth"

In 1999, an Associated Press story out of Tucson hoisted up the conventional wisdom that dangling sneakers are an emblem of gang activity and knocked it down with a quote from the police: "This is another kind of urban myth," a spokesman said.

Like law enforcement officials everywhere else, Tucson police have found no verifiable correlation between dangling sneakers and criminal activity.

Tucson Electric Power officials added that in any given week, five to 10 pairs of sneakers are removed from power lines all over the city of Tucson: "The highest periods of activity seem to be after school lets out for the summer break," as well as holidays, a spokesman said.

Folklorists Can't Explain It Either

Jan Harold Brunvand, the academic folklorist who originally popularized the term "urban legend" during the 1970s and '80s, told a reporter in 1997 that the dangling sneaker phenomenon was a complete mystery to him. "I've seen these shoes and wondered about them. Why do people do it? I have no idea. I think it must be juvenile high jinks," Brunvand said to Mike Clary of the LA Times.

Another academic folklorist, Gail Arlene de Vos of the University of Alberta, has labeled the phenomenon a "global contemporary legend," noting that not only the same phenomenon, but the same myriad explanations for the phenomenon, occur internationally.

A Flickr group called "Shoefiti" archives photos of dangling sneakers taken in many different parts of the world.

There is even a video documentary about the phenomenon, "The Mystery of Flying Kicks" by filmmaker Matthew Bate, which attempts to "get to the truth once and for all."

Sources and Further Reading

Why Do You See Pairs of Shoes Hanging by the Laces from Power Lines?
The Straight Dope, 2 August 1996

Answer to Shoe Mystery Is Up in the Air Los Angeles Times, 30 January 1997

Long Beach Is Tired of Waiting for Shoes to Drop
Los Angeles Times, 6 February 2010

About That Mystery of the Hanging Sneakers
The Daily News (Jacksonville), 4 January 2016

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Emery, David. "Sneakers on Power Lines." ThoughtCo, May. 22, 2016, thoughtco.com/sneakers-on-power-lines-3298224. Emery, David. (2016, May 22). Sneakers on Power Lines. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sneakers-on-power-lines-3298224 Emery, David. "Sneakers on Power Lines." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sneakers-on-power-lines-3298224 (accessed December 11, 2017).