In the urban core, especially Jersey City, if you’re looking to score drugs, you look up, not down, and when you see this hanging above you:

Shoes on a Wire

You know you’ve arrived at a Dealer’s corner.

“Shoes on a Wire” is a well-known street semiotic that drugs are nearby and available for purchase. In New York City there is a special sort of whistling Dealers use to communicate with each other and with their buyers.

Sometimes the whistling is a warning the police are nearby and other times it is used to push people away from claimed turf. In special instances the whistling calls in backup. I haven’t figured out the exact meaning and replication of the sounds yet but it is a fascinating phenomenon for further investigation.

Are there other urban semiotics that indicate drugs, or other illegal underground commerce, is available? If so, what are they?

46 Comments

  1. I have always wondered about shoes on a wire.
    I wonder if it has multiple meanings for different places.
    I’m going to have to ask around to see what it means here.
    Not too far from where I live, there is a single pair of tennis shoes hanging from a wire right in front of a house. Inside the house, lives a young man who was accused of being involved in the shooting of his friend in a farm field.
    The man’s friend had bought a flak jacket in preparation of joining the military, and according to the story published in the paper, asked his friends to help him test it out. Supposedly the man wanted to see what it would be like to be shot wearing the flak jacket.
    The old rule of never pointing a gun at another person was violated, the flak jacket wasn’t designed to be bulletproof, and the guy putting his faith in an army surplus item was mortally wounded.
    Not too long afterward, the solitary pair of shoes appeared in front of the house.
    Here’s the link to the news story since it sounds more like fiction than fact.

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  2. Hey Chris!
    Thanks for the link to the news story! Sometimes reality is harder to believe than fiction. What a sad story.
    “Shoes on a Wire” has been labeled by many an “urban myth” and not an “urban semiotic” but in the hardcore urban core I have seen the hanging shoes above known drug corners more often than not.
    The number of shoes hanging is also a clue — sometimes it means how many member of the neighborhood are in prison, or how many kinds of drugs are purchasable or how many Dealers claim that corner — it all depends on the area, culture and part of the nation from which the shoes overlook the scene.
    If you don’t know the local neighborhood it is hard to divine the meaning of the shoes.
    I also know the type of shoe — tennis, running, combat boots — have a semiotic intention as well.

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  3. Shoes on a wire down here just mean some kids are having fun because everytime I see shoes on a wire it isn’t really near anything. Now the places to score drugs are pretty easy to figure out when you see an influx of traffic going into one place and/or cars parked there on end. More times than not the yard itself will look like the place is scum.

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  4. Well, today, in Jersey City and in the backyard of our building — it is the “eye in the sky” or more accurately — “The Cop in the Tree.”
    We have undercover cops dressed as “tree nannies” who climb our trees to “prune” them with tiny video cameras and other surveillance equipment so they can record on the drug activity in the street.
    Nearly every street corner in Jersey City has some kind of illicit activity now and the police are finally getting creative in ways to clean it up!
    I’ll trade you a surveillance camera for pruning shears.

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  5. Actually, the places I see the shoes the most is along side a 4 lane highway near a gas station or just tossed up in an intersection on the traffic light wires. They are all middle-class areas I’d say.

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  6. I remember riding with a street wise friend when I was younger. She was pointing out the various “hot spots” in Gary, Indiana.
    There weren’t any outward signs of criminal activity, beyond maybe a person loitering in the area or a couple of cop cars parked in the block watching and trying to scare suburbanites away.
    We drove by an illegal casino that was in a run down building, a drug house that looked like any other house in the neighborhood, and some strip clubs that offered “extras.” Women wandering around aimlessly or waving to passing cars are a sign of another type of crime. If you weren’t in the know, you would have never known.
    Something about the way people are moving sometimes is the sign of illegal activity. A look or a quick signal might be the only sign.
    Most street crime is dealt with quickly by the cops. There is a joint FBI-local team that runs around the area rounding up people.
    The police are also planning to install cameras like the ones used in Chicago. They also have a Spot-Shot system that detects any gunfire in an area.
    The criminals know not to draw attention to themselves. There aren’t a lot of people on the streets selling drugs that I know of. There are people on the street who will point you to a place where you can get some, however.
    The dealers are out there.
    The guy sitting in a car at the gas station might be dealing. The people sitting on the front porch of a house might have something. The truck that pulls up next to another car at a Walgreens for a few seconds might be part of the underground economy.

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  7. Chris!
    You make an excellent point that the dealers want to blend in, not stand out.
    I know there are also signals in chalk some dealers make on walls and sidewalks to indicate activity and what is being sold — they sort of look like the “secret goodies” marker found everywhere in the Half-Life 2 game: You never know the graphic has any semiotic importance unless you know what you want to find.

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  8. At our old house in an eclectic neighborhood near downtown, there was a giant pink house that had a big lamppost in their front yard. Sometimes the lights were lit at night and they were red, sometimes blue, and sometimes they were turned off. I blogged about it way back then… (April 6, 2001) I said that maybe the couple seeing the for rent sign wasn’t so nice because this giant pink mansion was sort of known as a drug house. Or a brothel. Or both. These things are confusing in Happy Valley Salt Lake City, Utah.
    I was always told that the shoes on the wire meant that a pedestrian had been killed by a car there. That is pretty standard around here.
    Anyway, the pink house definitely stands out.

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  9. suzanne!
    Shoes mean a death by car. Wild! It will be interesting what happens when the wires disappear. All lines in Lincoln, Nebraska are now underground.
    I like your link, thanks!
    The colored lamps is a spooky story. In New York colored lamps stand outside the subway stations to let you know before you descend underground if the station is open or not — green means open, red means closed and I think they have yellow lights, too, or they did, but I don’t know if I ever knew what they meant.

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  10. Based on a very cursory investigation there definetely seems to be some regional variation in the phenomenom, with purpoted meanings varying from the hijinks of urban youth to the one David mentioned relating to drug dealer turf. I also came across a reference that suggested that the urban practice may have orignicated from a practice in the military of throwing boots over a wire/tire branch upon exiting a post.
    In Wag the Dog, they festooned trees with sneakers to fabricate the appearance of spontaneous homegrown support for their fake war.

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  11. wow, i had no idea that was their meaning. i’ve seen them sporadically scattered around the neighborhood… didn’t think it was because there were drugs in the area, but who knows?

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  12. I live in a small texas town and well there is a “hood” area here. and in that “hood” area there are sneakers on wires everywhere.. But you don’t need sneakers to tell you where the drugs are at. You can see the idiots dealing it just driving down the street..

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  13. in singapore, if you want to order a black coffee, you order a “COFFEE 0” pronounced more like “COPY OH”.
    i think this means coffee zero. or coffee with nothing added. at least thats how the friend i was staying with there explained it to me.

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  14. Ivy — Thanks for the comment! ‘Hoods and sneakers seem to be a popular combination in the urban core.
    bryce — What a fascinating story! Thanks for letting us know how to order coffee in Singapore!
    😀

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  15. Recently, on my way to work, I noticed a pair of red patent leather stripper boots up on a wire… that’s the sexiest shoes-on-a -wire I’ve ever seen!

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  16. Pic of the Day: Where Shoes Go To Hang…

    Today’s photograph happens to be from New York but could have been taken anywhere where people wear shoes and have electricty. For it is a tenet of human nature, give a kid a pair of shoes and a wire, and……

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  17. I live in Baltimore and the tennis shoes hanging on the wire were left to signify a gang members death, at least that is what I’m told. I’m sure it has several meanings as stated above They can be seen in the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore city.

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  18. Hi Colleen and welcome to Urban Semiotic!
    I was not aware of the gang member significance. That’s fascinating.
    It does seem that the poorest urban areas have the most shoes on a wire and that must be a great semiotic indicator of sadness.

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  19. Shoes on a wire is, loke most semiotics, very regional – localized even. It’s not a common practice in Bedstuy, but I’ve seen it the Bronx and in Jersey City. It seems to have many meanings and many subtleties.
    I think there’s a good chance that it was an urban myth, but has become real as people believed the myth and followed the practice.
    Media is Truth because Media MAKES the truth. LOL!

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  20. I’ve actually seen sneakers on wires in West End, Roatan, a Honduranian island located in the Carribean. According to the local guide, shoes on a wire meant it was a bad “hood”, and advised us to stay out of it, but didn’t explain it further to us. Seems like this is a world-wide phenomenon!

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    1. Thanks for the worldwide report, Tobias. It is a fascinating phenomenon. It seems “Shoes on a Wire” are a danger marker more than anything. I’ve never seen that semiotic proposed in an unconditionally positive light.

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  21. Yeah i live in southgate a sub of detroit..its really not too bad of a city its middle class…but we have shoes over our highschool and ive been told by people its drugs which makes sense because theres always some kids trying to sell marijuana mostly

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  22. Wow, who knew? that is very interesting, ive always wondered about the shoes on a wire. Im doing a school project on this. Thank you for all the info:)

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  23. There is an overpass down the road from where I work that I go under all the time. There are always shoes there, not hanging on power lines but neatly placed on the edge of the curb. From time to time these shoes change. Right now there are three pairs, one black leather womans shoes, another pair of mens running shoes and another pair that I didn’t get a good look at. The are all placed by their corresponding match lined up next to each other.
    Occasionally you see people stopped in their car under the bridge but never see anyone approaching the car. The area is surrounded by woods so I have no idea how anyone would sell drugs there.
    Does anyone have any idea what this all means?

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  24. I live in Melbourne Australia and I’ve travelled the world. I have seen them all over the world and in all types of areas too. In Melbourne we have a lot of trendy lane ways and alleys with graffiti and shoes on lines.
    I have heard so many things from drugs related, gangs, deaths, loss of virginity, bullying, last day of school, retiring from the military and so on.
    I really think there is truth in all of these things tho.
    we don’t have a lot of murders or gang related things going on here, so I think it maybe drugs or just “shoeffiti”

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    1. That’s a good comment, Jayde. I think we are devolving into “everything means nothing” because of all the cultural noise surrounding us. The only thing we have left to wonder about is what it all really meant once when these cultural totems were first introduced. Now they’ve lost all their meaning.

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  25. I have always wondered about this but one this is certain they all mean something as I always wonder, where is the other shoe? If it where just kids playing I think you would see 2 shoes but its always a single shoe. So here is a thought, what do they do with the other shoe?

    Mary in Vegas

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    1. Hi Mary —

      I’ve only seen shoes in pairs. They’re tied together with the shoelaces and then tossed in the air to land on the suspended wire. The velocity of the shoes, and the fulcrum of the wire against the laces causes the shoes to flip and wind over the wire so they’ll stay hanging. I don’t know how one shoe on a wire would be able to stay on a wire using that method.

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  26. ok, im a 14 year old kid that lives near Katy, TX and Houston TX, and im sorry but i smoke weed occasionaly, but because im ADHD and have anxiety. sorry if you are disgusted by me, but i dont care. now, when i see shoes on a wire it means either means one or two things. if it is means one thing, it just means drugs are near by. if it means two things it means that there is a gang there that is in drugs. just thought id share. no its not how i get my weed. i get it at school. thank you.

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