Long Beach is tired of waiting for shoes to drop

If you look up, you might spot them hanging from telephone wires and power lines by their shoelaces.

Some people say the suspended sneakers, high-tops and boots mark a place where drugs are sold. Other lore holds they commemorate a killing, mark gang territory or vow retaliation.

Others insist throwing shoes tied together by their laces over a wire is just a kid’s prank, an effort to leave a mark that’s as pointless as sticking gum under a table.

No matter why they’re there, so-called shoefiti isn’t exactly a welcome-to-the-neighborhood message.

Long Beach wants to get a handle on what has been a persistent blemish on the urban landscape. To that end, city leaders this week requested a system to remove shoes from utility lines within 72 hours.

“It’s nothing but a blight. Look what it does to community, to property values,” said Councilman Dee Andrews, who sponsored the motion. “If you see one tennis shoe hanging off a wire and you don’t do anything about it, you’re going to see another, and another, and you’re opening up the floodgates.”

The problem has confounded Long Beach officials for years. While it’s easy to send crews to pick up discarded furniture or patch potholes, plucking shoes down is a bureaucratic tangle.

At least four utilities -- including Southern California Edison, Verizon and Charter Communications -- are responsible for removing shoes from both the low-hanging, thick-coated telephone and cable wires and the high-strung power lines.

But when one company is called, officials say, they won’t touch any shoes on another firm’s wires. So the shoes can hang around for weeks, months, even years.

In Andrews’ district in central Long Beach, the city has fielded hundreds of requests for shoe removal in the last two years. About half of those shoes are still dangling from the wires, said John Edmond, Andrews’ chief of staff.

Figuring out who should get them down is such a puzzle that after one recent complaint, city officials gave up and dispatched the Fire Department to take down one pair with a ladder truck.

“To me, that’s just ridiculous,” Andrews said. If the city can remove graffiti within 48 hours, he pondered, why are shoes left to rot?

Long Beach residents ask the same thing.

A pair of Nike low-tops have hung on the telephone line within view of Mario Garcia’s second-story apartment for three years.

“I have no idea what it means -- maybe they were put there by gangs,” the 53-year-old pool cleaner said. “But it gives a bad impression.”

And though he’s never reported them -- he wouldn’t know whom to call -- he welcomes any effort that would bring them down.

City leaders aren’t expecting total eradication.

“It’s like graffiti,” Andrews said. “We’ll never be able to stop it, but we can get a handle on it.”

No town is immune from the odd pair of shoes slung over a telephone wire.

It’s an urban ill cities nationwide have tried to eliminate, particularly since the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention took hold in the late 1990s. The thinking was that if vandalism such as a broken window was left unrepaired, a neighborhood would slowly decay and fall victim to more serious crimes.

In a symbolic gesture, former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn once boarded a cherry picker to personally take down a pair of moldy tennis shoes from a Lincoln Heights utility line.

The Los Angeles City Council took up the issue in 2007, calling for a 72-hour response time.

The Department of Water and Power has been removing shoes since 2003, even if they’re on other companies’ lines, officials said.

Southern California Edison crews remove shoes within three to five business days, “but they’re rarely on our electricity lines,” spokesman Larry Labrado said.

But in Long Beach, the shoes continue to accumulate, serving as eyesores that hint of depressed property values and neglect.

“It’s almost as bad as having graffiti” said Daryoush Golshan, the owner of a vacant building on Pacific Coast Highway who said shoes flung on nearby utility lines have turned off potential tenants such as Denny’s. “Those who have mentioned the shoes on a wire haven’t called again.”

Others, including Trace Fukuhara, 60, think it should be easy to fix.

Fukuhara can see three pairs of shoes suspended on the utility line next to the sculpture garden he maintains: Two pairs of black Adidas and some tattered Nikes that have hung in the sun for about seven years, by his estimate.

“It’s petty, and no one wants to take responsibility,” he said. “Just hire a contractor with a scissor lift and keep cutting them down until there are no more. They’ll stop.”

One option the city is considering is dedicated shoe removal crews.

There are skeptics, of course. One of them is 20-year-old plumber’s apprentice Daniel Ramos, who often hangs out near Fourth Street and Gaviota Avenue, where two pairs of furry boots and some black walking shoes hang above a liquor store, a barbershop and a dense block of apartments.

“When you see that, you know it’s a ghetto neighborhood. It’s a warning to keep on your toes,” said Ramos, who recalls watching friends throw them up just for kicks when he was a boy. His uncle would toss his worn-out shoes skyward as a way of making his mark, in his own small way.

“It’s an old habit that can’t be forgotten,” he said. “They’ll take them down, but someone will just throw them up there again.”

Sure enough, by next morning, another pair of white tennis shoes had joined the others on the line.