shoes on powerline
Photo by Donny Levit / Brooklyn Pulp

I’ve been anticipating the questions that my toddler will begin asking me soon enough; the “why is the sky blue?” type of inquiries which I’m trying to brush up on.

During our walk yesterday, my son surprised me with one of those, except this one doesn’t involve atmospheric queries.

He’s taken to gazing up at the sky to spot flocks of birds and airplanes. Yesterday, he eyed something new.

“Why are there shoes in the trees, daddy?”

And so goes one of the fascinating questions which have many urban dwellers scratching their heads.

Why are there shoes in trees? We have buried power lines in our neighborhood, so he hasn’t spotted the ones swinging in the wind on power lines.

When I was a kid growing up in the Bronx, I remember my building’s super telling me that people sling their shoes up there when they move out of a neighborhood. To paraphrase, he said, “When neighbors move out, this is the way they say ‘I’ve lived here.'”

For years, I took him literally.

But there’s been a lot of debunking. And the more debunking which takes place, the more the mystery becomes a brainteaser.

shoes in tree
My son spotted these on Ocean Parkway between Avenue C and Cortelyou Road. (Photo by Donny Levit / Brooklyn Pulp)

In 2011, Snopes addressed the claim that “Old running shoes hanging from trees and power lines are ‘gang signs.'”

Among the suggestions which have cropped up over the years:

  • It’s the work of gangs marking the boundaries of their territory.
  • Bullies take them off defenseless kids, then sling them up out of reach as the ultimate taunt.
  • Gang members create an informal memorial at the spot where a friend lost his life.
  • Crack dealers festoon wires to advertise their presence in the neighborhood.
  • The shoes increase wire visibility for low-flying aircraft.
  • Overly puffed-up boys who have just lost their virginity or otherwise passed a sexual milestone look to signal the event to others.
  • Graduating seniors mark this transition in their lives by leaving something of themselves behind; namely, their shoes.
  • Kids do it just because it’s fun. And besides, what else are you going to do with a worn-out pair of sneakers other than tie the laces together and toss them high?

Even the ever reliable City Lab admits that the myth is difficult to explain, although the article points out the Wikipedia entry of “shoe tossing.”

The Mystery of Flying Kicks from Closer Productions on Vimeo.

Now before you completely give up hope, we’ll recommend The Mystery of Flying Kicks, a short Australian film shot by Closer Productions.

Roadside America documents the “shoe trees” of Middlegate, Nevada and Beaver, Arkansas, and other places around the country. Of Middlegate, a tipster explained to RA that “the first pair was thrown during a wedding night argument by a young couple; later, their children’s shoes were added to the bough.”

hanging shoes
Norman Avenue and Dobbin Street in Greenpoint. (Photo credit: Tim Daoust)

So what’s the best answer for a little guy who wants to know the reason?

My son and I need to catch someone in the act. It may take years, but I’ll consider it a father-son bonding exercise.

Embrace the myth, young gent. And create more of your own.

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