Why Do People Toss Shoes Over Power Lines?

‘Shoefiti’ is everywhere—but not everyone agrees on what it means. Some suspect it's innocent, while others ascribe darker meanings to a dangling pair of kicks.
Shoes hanging from power lines have invited a lot of urban myths.
Shoes hanging from power lines have invited a lot of urban myths. / Chris Bailey/Image Source via Getty Images

Odd as it may seem, power lines have become a somewhat popular source of urban fascination. People have wondered why they sometimes sport brightly colored balls, why chunks of trees sometimes hang from them, or why birds love to use them as perches.

While these mysteries have ready explanations, another utility phenomenon doesn’t: Why do people often see pairs of shoes dangling from power lines?

Lauren Cahn of Reader’s Digest covered a few possible reasons, and not all of them are benign. One popular theory holds that the shoes may be a signal that there’s gang activity in a given neighborhood. Tying the laces of shoes together and tossing them over the lines is a form of staking out territory.

Plausible? Sure. But Cahn couldn’t find any police departments that would confirm. However, a 2015 story from WBEZ in Chicago quoted a “high-ranking member” of the Bloods who corroborated the theory, saying that the shoe-throwing was intended as a notice to rival groups. The source also stated that the shoes could mark that someone had been killed or “knocked […] out of his shoes.” Other stories echo the idea that the shoes could be an impromptu memorial.

An adjacent explanation is that the shoes are a kind of advertisement to illicit drug consumers that narcotics are available in the area. Unlike the gang theory, this one holds credence with some police departments and city councils, including in Alabama and Mississippi. Because it’s ambiguous—as opposed to, say, a large “Buy Drugs Here” sign—it’s possible dealers might be willing to “advertise” with a pair of sneakers.

Other sources cited nothing more than juvenile mischief. Kids may toss old shoes up as a mild form of vandalism or possibly to antagonize a friend or family member. Though they’d need access to a stray pair of shoes—prying them off a child and then tossing them seems impractical. When shoes go missing, it's usually one at a time, which is why it's more common to see just one shoe on the side of the road than two.

The most innocuous explanation? That it’s simply a rite of passage. One columnist for Hidden City Philadelphia wrote in 2012 that the practice was common in the 1970s as a way of discarding old or outgrown sneakers. Because some lines had multiple pairs, it appeared that the tossing was often kids emulating behavior.

More recently, students at the University of Michigan observed that the act was simply commemorating their graduation. Shoes dangle from lines near rented student housing, and some have names of graduates and dates written on them.

There’s likely no one motive for the shoe-tossing. It may, however, be in decline. Chicago, for example, received more than 1100 requests to remove the shoes in 2008. Those numbers had dropped by 71 percent by 2014.

Whatever the motive for tossing them, the shoes pose a risk of interrupting the power line's performance. Often, utility companies will honor requests to have them taken down.

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