Jeff Staple’s Oral History of the 2005 Nike SB “Pigeon” Riot In NYC

Sneakers made front page news for the first time, like ever.

When underground movements step out from online clubhouses and into the streets, the daylight does not burn. Rather, the subsequent spotlight—whether shimmering or critical—thrust onto the purveyors of a new cultural cache only emboldens growth. It’s like a steroid. Over time, that growth ultimately defines the purpose of the movement.

On February 22, 2005, the release of Nike SB’s hyper-limited Jeff Staple “Pigeon” collaboration in New York City’s Lower East Side—inspired by the city’s ubiquitous bird—was cause for a burgeoning sneaker culture to flood Manhattan’s streets in a lineup so chaotic, it makes Thursday’s at Supreme look like church. The date is observed in hypebeast lore, and depending on your reading of history, marked the emergence of sneaker culture and hypebeasts onto the national media scene. Thirteen years later, the impact the “Pigeon” release had is no less than a watershed moment in sneaker history.

“A lot of people call this shoe the shoe that catapulted sneaker culture to the masses,” says Jeff Staple. “Because that night, an old lady living in Central Park West saw it on the evening news and was like, ‘What’s going on? People are lining up and fighting for shoes and I don’t get it.’”

Fanatical fury and passion, originally ostracized by the press, legitimized the sneakerhead cause for jawnz, and forced sneaker brands to re-evaluate selling strategies. For arguably the first time, the sneakerhead could be visualized, identified, indexed, and learned from. In the years that followed the February 2005 “Pigeon” release, media properties like Complex (“BUY, COLLECT, OBSESS” used to be their magazine’s tag-line) and HYPEBEAST honed-in on catering to newly self-identified streetwear obsessives. Sneaker companies followed the “Pigeon” model by flooding the market with limited-run sneakers en route to carving out a $1.1 billion annual industry.

(To whit, according to Staple, the 2005 Nike SB “Pigeon” cost $32.50 wholesale, but have been re-sold at upwards of $7,000, or over 200x the original price to a retailer.)

At the center of the “Pigeon” release was a force known as “The Hype,” or that widespread intangible feeling of excitement and lust shared by community. It has become both a driving economic indicator and a bully pulpit for more populist-minded “Yeezy’s for everybody!” dissenters. As played out in reality, however, The Hype is nothing more than a corporate manipulation of supply-and-demand to ensure “winners” and “losers” with each sneaker drop. Lose out today? Better luck next time. And there’s always a next time, because there’s always another sneaker.

If you can find them, they’ll cost you at least $8,000 resale.

Back in June 2015, I spoke to Staple at the Brooklyn Museum during its “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture” exhibit. His personal pair of the “Pigeon” was on display as part of the exhibit, which focused on each sneaker’s historical place and cultural symbolism. We spoke right next to his sneaker, entombed in glass and soft lighting. I filed a separate piece on the exhibit itself for HuffPost Sports, but Staple’s re-telling of the “Pigeon” riot never ran. So today, on the day’s thirteenth anniversary, I’ll have him explain what the fuck happened himself:

Where Did The Hype Come From?

Staple: When Nike asked me to do this, I had already designed about seven or eight shoes with Nike. We already had a good relationship. They said, ‘We want you to design a shoe that’s dedicated to New York City,’ so we did the Pigeons dunk.

When I designed the shoe, I didn’t design it with the intent of making it a hyped thing. I just wanted to make a dope thing that’s timeless. You see a lot of shoes here, and I’m not criticizing them, but they’re works of art that aren’t meant to be worn. They’re meant to be put on a shelf. I purposefully wanted to make a shoe you could rock all the time or you can covet and put on a shelf. I think that’s why there’s extreme scarcity with the Pigeon dunk.

The Kids Were On Some CSI Shit

Staple: It’s those kids on the forums and the boards. They are so CSI knowledgeable about shit. They know stuff we don’t. We actually didn’t know when we were going to get the shipment of Pigeons into our warehouse. The day it arrived, I remember I sliced open the box and I was like, ‘Here it is!’ And then we got phone calls like immediately.

I really think they have FedEx tracking like hacked or the FedEx guy is in on it. It was like, ‘I heard you got the Pigeons today.’ And I’m like, ‘I just opened the box like five seconds ago, how did you know?’

Seriously, the next day, kids started pitching tents outside of our store and started waiting four days before the release in the middle of February in New York. It was blizzarding. I felt bad. Every night I would buy pizzas for the kids, because they were sleeping outside in a snowstorm for four days.

Then NYPD Came Thru

Staple: On the day of the release — imagine you’re sleeping in the cold for four days — the cops came, because there were over a hundred people now. They were like, ‘Break up the line.’ The kids were like, ‘No fucking way. I’ve been sleeping here for four days.’

The kids weren’t leaving, so the cops were like, ‘If you don’t leave the line, we’re arresting you.’ They were pulling kids off the gate and arresting them, and kids are holding onto the gate not letting go. Then it turned into a soccer match. Cops called higher level police, like SWAT, and some of the people who came to wait in line brought their own weapons. We saw machetes and baseball bats on the ground. It was crazy. It was just go to a store and buy shoes before that.

The Aftermath: A New Sneaker Culture & Clientele

Staple: Before the riot, sneaker culture was underground and kind of nerdy. After that, we had investment bankers coming into the store telling us, ‘We used to buy cigars and wine. Now we’re just going to buy sneakers.’ It changed overnight.

I was absorbing the changes as it was happening and processing it myself. I remember Timberland came into the store the next day [after the riot] and asked, ‘Who’s responsible for that Nike shoe that just came out yesterday? We want a riot too.’ It was like ordering fries at a restaurant: ‘We would like a riot.’

When the riot happened with me, it was organic. Even Nike was like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’

Staple’s since worked with Nike on more “Pigeon” sneakers. Above, a sample from his latest release.