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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 will admit up front that I don't have a definitive answer. No one does. Like most people, I've noticed the darned things dangling way up there on utility lines over virtually every neighborhood I've ever lived in, and always assumed they were artifacts of one of those adolescent male challenges or rites of passage most of us are party to during our youth — e.g., let's see which one of us can fling a pair of old sneakers over the highest wire.

Popular beliefs

It is popularly believed that tennis shoes hanging from utility wires designate "gang territory" or a location where one can buy street drugs, but that version of events would not seem to apply to the hefty percentage of shoes seen dangling over non-gang neighborhoods and quiet streets in rural towns where there's little or no gang and 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?).

Cecil Adams catalogued at least a dozen more theories in a 1996 "Straight Dope" column, all of them very interesting but unconclusive. The long and short of it is that everybody seems to have a theory but nobody knows the answer. Maybe there is no answer; maybe sneakers hanging on power lines don't have any particular meaning at all.

Police: 'This is another kind of urban myth'

More recently, 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 correlation between dangling sneakers and crime.

Tucson Electric Power officials added that in any given week, 5 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.

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