ST. JOHN, Ind. -- For decades, the area around "Shoe Corner" at 109th Avenue and Calumet Street in Indiana has been littered with shoes. The gravel sidewalks, road signs and power lines around the corner serve as a resting place for lost soles of all types, from cowboy boots to high heels, gym shoes to work boots.
Ryan M. from Lakeview / Crown Point writes to Ask WGN: "Since I can remember, people have been dumping their old sneakers at this notorious intersection and nobody seems to TRULY know why. What gives?" Asked another way: "What's the deal with 'Shoe Corner' in Indiana?"
The short answer is the origins of Shoe Corner remain shrouded in myth and mystery.
St. John Town Manager Steve Kil grew up in the area, and said as long as he can remember over the last 40 years, there have always been shoes on Shoe Corner. After talking to older town residents, he said the phenomenon could go back as far as 50 or 60 years.
As to why it started in the first place, there are plenty of theories but none seem to be backed by any evidence, Kil said. There's a tale of people leaving shoes for a homeless family that stayed nearby. A lone boot that was left in the middle of the street but was never struck by a car, inspiring decades of copycats.
"There's one story where somebody saw a pair of sandals out there, they actually thought they were sandals from Jesus Christ, so they started offering shoes," Kil said.
Regardless of how it started, the tradition has carried on for decades. The amount of shoes seems to grow the most over the weekends in the summer, but Kil said whoever is leaving shoes, they likely do it in the dead of night.
"Nobody ever seems to throw them out there," Kil said. "They just magically seem to appear."
The corner itself is one of the busiest in town, according to Kil, as thousands of people pass through on their way towards Illinois for work. When asked whether they ever left shoes at the local landmark, multiple residents joked that it's "a secret."
"I was a teenager once - we'll leave it at that," Kil said.
While the abandoned footwear is regularly cleaned up by the Lake County Highway Department, Kil said there are shoes back on the corner "the very next day."
While Shoe Corner is unique, it's reminiscent of some local traditions, like lovers leaving locks behind on bridges, or a piece of graffiti on a wall inspiring other anonymous artists to follow suit. Collaboration researcher Dr. Mark Elliott describes this dynamic as "stigmergy," which in animals leads to impressive acts of coordination without direct communication. One example is individual ants coming together to build massive mounds even though no central entity is telling them what to do.
Essentially, seeing shoes on the corner serves as a cue to anyone who sees them to follow suit. These cues are made even stronger when people hear the myths surrounding Shoe Corner, Elliott said.
"In this case for example, the back-story / urban legends and mystery about shoe corner likely contributes to and reinforces the stigmergic cue for people to contribute," Elliott said by email from Australia.
Whatever psychological factors may be at play, Kil agrees there must be something deeper inspiring people to keep the tradition alive.
"There's no other explanation as to why the shoes keep appearing," Kil said. "There's no way it's one person."
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