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New Jersey News

Ghosts of Sneakers Past

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More than 100 running shoes in different shades of lime green, orange and turquoise are arranged in the shape of a heart on the cover of Boston magazine’s May issue. In the center, the words: “We will finish the race.”

Boston Marathon runners donated the shoes they were wearing when the explosions went off, so they could be photographed for the cover. The editor of the magazine, John Wolfson, says he and his staff were not expecting the strong, emotional reaction they've been receiving. And he says he doesn’t think a display of running bibs, for example, would have had the same effect.

“There’s something about those shoes that seems to have connected,” he said.

In New Jersey, shoes are sparking a similar connection among young people who are walking a trail of shoes that represent the lives of young people lost to gun violence.

“We call each other sneaker heads if you like sneakers a lot,” said 14-year-old Tyneikia Robinson. “I’m a big sneaker head.”

She and her friends at Camden Street School in Newark are pacing between rows of tennis shoes and boots, stopping at each pair to kneel down and read the tags that have been tied to how laces. 

Immediately, there’s a connection. Just in the shoes.

“Every sneaker has a story,” Tyneikia said. “I just feel like it’s so many lives and so much history and so much memories to all these shoes.”

Each pair represents a young life lost to gun violence in the US in 1998, the year Elaine Lane’s son, David, was shot and killed.

Lane, of Irvington, N.J.,  started the anti-violence program called David’s Shoes. She takes her trail of shoes, including the tattered brown work boots her son was wearing when he was shot, to schools around New Jersey. The message of her exhibit is for young people to value life.

“The young man who killed my son did not believe he had value,” Lane told a crowd of elementary and middle school students. “So it was easy for him to pick up a gun and shoot another individual seven times.”

Photo: Elaine Lane has collected a couple hundred shoes that represent young lives lost to gun violence. Her goal is to collect thousands, to represent the total number of young people killed by violence the year her son was shot and killed. (Sarah Gonzalez/WNYC)

She begs students to make positive choices so she never ends up with a pair of their shoes on her display. She hopes to collect 3,792 pairs – one for each person under age 19 who was killed by gun violence in the U.S. the year her son died.  

She came up with the idea of collecting shoes after walking a path of military boots that represented lives lost in the Iraq war. But she had no idea sneakers would resonate with young people so much.

“I actually wear some of these shoes," said 13-year-old Michael Lawrence. “I wear the Timberlands and I wear the Nikes and they getting robbed for their shoes and stuff, that’s pretty scary.”

Sneakers are intertwined with the students' identity. They can see the people behind the scuffed, worn-out sneakers. And when Tenika and her friend Lamani Bruce read the description of how the young people died, the connection becomes stronger. 

One tag reads: Usef Johnson, an honors student at University High School was shot twice as he walked home, August 10, 2005.

“That is crazy. He’s an honors student and we are both honors students, me and Lamani and we want to go to University High School,” Tyneika said. “I don’t want to be that boy, man. I don't want to be that boy."

Listen to the story to hear the voices of students as they walk the trail of shoes.