There is a city bench at 5100 Park Heights Ave. that stands as a monument to a moment in sneaker history — a cultural marker of sorts.
Right below the familiar "Baltimore — The Greatest City in America," black writing on a yellow slat reads: "DAMN RIGHT, YOU SAVED THE AIR FORCE 1."
It ends with the Nike "swoosh" logo.
A mural on the same corner — above the now closed Cinderella Shoes store — illuminates more of the city's unlikely role in keeping production going of the iconic Nike Air Force 1 sneaker.
Given that Under Armour — a Nike rival — is based in Baltimore, it seems ironic that the city would share an important Nike moment. But it all happened years before Under Armour was born.
It's a significant enough Nike development that the Oregon-based brand has launched a shoe sold exclusively in Baltimore.
"Without Baltimore, the Nike Air Force 1 might have faded out of existence," Nike says in a recent promo. "In 1984, two years after its launch, Nike wasn't planning to continue production of the shoe, but thanks to Baltimore's enthusiastic wearers, the AF-1 continued to be made."
Nike says the newly created shoe — called the Special Field Air Force 1 Mid For Baltimore — "pays homage with B'More detailing, a custom-embroidered strap, an '84 hangtag and comic-inspired insoles." Nike partnered with a local youth arts program to help tell the story.
"It's black and it's got B'More across the strap. We've got window banners here – it's a museum-type setup," said Greg Vaughn, manager of the Mondawmin mall store.
People lined up on Sept. 30 to buy the shoe when it went on sale exclusively at Downtown Locker Room stores in Mondawmin Mall and on Monument Street.
"The shoe was released on a Saturday and we opened before the mall opened. When we opened the doors we had 40 people in line by 9:00. By 10, we had sold 50 pairs," Vaughn said.
The story of the city's role was recounted earlier this year upon the death of Harold Rudo, who ran Charley Rudo Sports with stores at Mondawmin and Old Town malls and became known as "Mr. Shoe" as he helped popularize and preserve the Air Force 1 model throughout Baltimore.
His sister, Rochelle Rudo, told The Baltimore Sun last spring that Nike's marketing plan was to introduce new shoes on a frequent basis, and the company planned to discontinue the Air Force 1 just a couple of years after it was introduced in 1982. But she said her brother found the original was a top seller, at least among his customers.
"After a time, Nike decided to send AF1s to the chopping block," she said. "Harold wouldn't let that happen. He got himself to the Nike campus in Oregon, talked with the executives and persuaded them to keep making AF1s."
"The shoes were blowing out of my store," Harold Rudo recalled in a Sun article in 2007. "I flew out to [Nike's headquarters in] Portland, Oregon, and met with the second-in-command."
"Harold was the reason the shoe went on to become what it did," said Gregory Vaughan, manager of the Downtown Locker Room at Mondawmin and a friend for 35 years. "The Nike executives laughed at him at first, but he placed a large order for himself, and you had to come to Baltimore to buy them. Soon the music celebrities ... were coming ... for the shoes with the colors."
Harold Rudo's sister said he suggested adding colors to the original all-white shoe.
"Rudo and cohorts from the other two sporting-goods stores persuaded Nike initially to continue selling two styles of Air Force 1's — white with royal blue, and white with chocolate brown — but only in their stores in Baltimore," The Sun's 2007 story said.
The Evening Sun
Besides Charley Rudo and Cinderella Shoes — both now closed, the other store was Downtown Locker Room, which has expanded since to 103 stores in 12 states.
After the exclusive run in Baltimore — where it enjoyed an underground sort of appeal — the shoe was re-released nationally.
The Sun described the shoe as "a sneaker that Baltimore had a major role in saving and helping to become an urban fashion sensation of the past generation."
The shoe became popular partly because "of the idea of never having enough supply to meet demand," said Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst for The NPD Group. "That sort of business model developed over time."
Knowing supply was limited, Powell said people "would line up to get a pair. It's still an important shoe but people don't line up like they used to."