Nick Wiebe/Wikipedia

Chicago residents are scratching their heads over this age-old mystery.

Every citygoer has at one point or another spotted a pair of shoes hanging like mistletoe from telephone wires. Ghost shoes are a staple of urban decor; they propagate furiously in innercities, spreading to nearby trees like ugly sparrows come to roost.

What is the reason for these hanging shoes? Don't people, you know, need them to walk with?

The great minds of our country have pondered the question for decades, turning it this way and that and shaking it in the hope something plausible will fall out. The theories range from drug dealers (or users) giving a sign that an open-air market is close to memorials for victims of gun violence. What city residents believe about the phantom footwear dictates how they respond to it. Some rush to call the authorities to cut them down, while others choose to live with sneakers hanging over their heads, perhaps afraid that narcotraffickers will enact revenge if they touch them.

Shoe tossing is an activity so prevalent it has its own Wikipedia entry, which defines it as a "folk sport," whatever that is. (If it helps, "bamboo pole drifting" is also a folk sport, as is kabutarbazi.) The phenomenon is widespread enough that it appears in Lebanon and Australia, according to Shoefiti, a site that tracks instances of strung-up shoes. Yet despite shoe-throwing enjoying a worldwide popularity, humankind lacks a solid answer for why it happens.

On the Chicago forum of neighborhood-news site EveryBlock, a user named Elaine brought up the issue once again. She writes: "[W]hat does it mean when you see a pair of tennis shoes tied together and flung over a telephone/electric wires?" The answers that popped up in response were zippy, wide-ranging and anything but helpful. Have a look at how we still struggle to understand shoefiti:

Chris S.:

They are cast-offs of people who were raptured into heaven in 2011. You have to take your shoes off before entering.

Bill Savage:

They're the shoe stores for Occupy La Salle Street. Anyone runs out of shoes, they just check out the power/phone lines for more.

Alarmed Sloth:

It means you live near idiots. Just like when you find any other evidence of idiots: empty beer bottles, plastic bags, fast food wrappers or squirrel poison. Rogers Park is full of inconsiderate idiots who don't care what the neighborhood looks like, much like much of the city.

Jill C.:

It means some poor kid is about to get his butt kicked twice. Once from the bully who threw his shoes up there. The second time from his parents for losing his shoes.

Anon Imous:

(1)One shoe wont stay up there alone without the other.
(2)Someone was hung there upside down and fell.
(3)Someone thought by doing this, it would drive people crazy wondering why.

On the more helpful side were these responses:

Inactive User:

"Shoefiti if another territorial marking used by the gangs for turf. Or, it could mean you've got a crack house nearby."

RCNCableguy:

"In the Army, they used to toss 'em up there when they were moving away."

Winchester:

"When I was a kid (in this neighborhood) oftentimes a bully would toss a pair of shoes over a phone wire just to be a jerk after picking on some poor kid."

So all over the place! Snopes offers a comprehensive list of explanations, including the hard-to-believe assertion that the floating shoes are meant to warn low-flying aircraft about the wires. Then there's this great one: "Overly puffed-up boys who have just lost their virginity or otherwise passed a sexual milestone look to signal the event to others." The fact-checking website concludes that there isn't a single reason why people hurl shoes over wires, and that "the answer lies within each of us, shoe-slinger and non-shoe-slinger alike."

And that sounds reasonable... until a better answer comes along.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Multicolored maps of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Tampa, denoting neighborhood fragmentation
    Equity

    Urban Neighborhoods, Once Distinct by Race and Class, Are Blurring

    Yet in cities, affluent white neighborhoods and high-poverty black ones are outliers, resisting the fragmentation shown with other types of neighborhoods.

  2. A photo of a new subdivision under construction in South Jordan, Utah.
    Perspective

    A Red-State Take on a YIMBY Housing Bill

    Utah’s SB 34, aimed at increasing the state’s supply of affordable housing, may hold lessons for booming cities of the Mountain West, and beyond.

  3. Design

    A History of the American Public Library

    A visual exploration of how a critical piece of social infrastructure came to be.

  4. Design

    The Curious Politics of a Montreal Mega-Mall

    The car-dependent suburb it’ll be built in wants to greenlight Royalmount against the city government’s wishes but it needs them to pay for the public infrastructure.

  5. Design

    There’s a Tile Theft Epidemic in Lisbon

    With a single azulejo fetching hundreds of euros at the city’s more reputable antique stores, these tiles, sitting there out in the open, are easy pickings.