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New Exhibit Laces Together Sneakers And History

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Ritchy Issac (left) and Myles Linton (right) consider themselves part of sneaker culture, the subject of an exhibit now on display at the Brooklyn Museum.
Ilya Marritz, WNYC
Ritchy Issac (left) and Myles Linton (right) consider themselves part of sneaker culture, the subject of an exhibit now on display at the Brooklyn Museum.

It's a funny feeling to step into a darkened gallery, look into a glass case and see colorful foam and rubber sneakers.

But there are plenty of people who revere kicks like holy icons. Sneakerheads, they're called — like Myles Linton, a high school student entering his senior year.

"I've been into sneakers for a couple years now," Linton says. "It's kind of a part of me, a part of my community."

On his feet, he's got a pair of Air Jordan 4 Toros, black and red. He calls them "kinda basic."

I met Linton in a sneaker shop and asked him to join me at the press preview of the show at the Brooklyn Museum, titled "Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture."

So what does Linton want to see?

"My favorite sneaker is the Air Jordan 1," he says. "So if they have those on display, especially the first one like the 'Chicago' or the 'Breds' — which are my favorite sneaker of all time — then yeah, that would be dope to see."

The show begins with some of the first rubber shoes ever made. They were manufactured in Brazil and exported to America in the 1830s.

In the same case, there's a crusty, brown, old canvas kick with a familiar shape. It's a Converse All Star from 1917, the year that shoe was first produced.

"That's crazy, I mean, this is what I wanted to see," Linton says. "This is ridiculous. An actual pair."

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Every step here is shoe history. There's a bizarre high heeled sneaker from around 1925 and a TV ad for Keds from 1958.

And then, the shoe Myles dreamed of: Air Jordan 1, 1985.

"This is dope to see right here," he says. "Air, 1985. Great year for sneakers, great year for Jordan."

The caption reminds us that Michael Jordan was fined $5,000 every time he wore his Jordans on the court, until the NBA was forced to change the rules that banned colorful shoes.

"You could definitely see from the aging of the midsole," Linton says. "It's a OG pair — original pair."

Linton's friend, Ritchy Isaac, joins us in appraising this shoe.

"You would never see something from back in the day that would look exactly the same today," Isaac says. "The factory procedures are different now. You just won't get that back."

Linton and Isaac, both 17 years old, know a lot — I mean, a ton — about what people were wearing on their feet, long before they were even born.

The curator of this exhibit, Elizabeth Semmelhack, says sneakerheads are historians.

"They are interested in the nuances of this history, they suck the information dry, they spend time with the artifacts. They read every label. I tell you, there is not a better museum audience than the sneakerheads," she says.

Linton and Isaac were more or less immobilized by a display of early 21st century Jordans, all perfectly preserved.

"A lot of people might sit here and say, 'Wow, you could just look at sneakers for however much time.' But, you know, people wear it every day. It's gone through so much changes. And despite what anyone says, it's been a huge part of, you know, culture," Linton says.

The sneaker show travels to Toledo, Ohio, and Louisville, Ky., next. You can still catch it in Brooklyn through October.

And the show continues once you leave the building. Just look down at the feet all around you.

Copyright 2015 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnyc.org/.

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