Toynbee Tiles

Philadelphia is a great city for walking, especially if one is in the habit of looking down. It wasn’t too long ago that a tour meant less a visit to the city’s remains of the day then having to navigate past its remains of the dogs. Today if one looks down, one is apt to see cleaner sidewalks, abandoned streetcar rails and the Toynbee Tiles.

Yes, my personal choice for one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the oddly phrased Toynbee Tiles first appeared in Philadelphia’s streets in 1983, a simpler time when inspired young poets could be found scrawling misspelled lewd phrases into wet cement.

Inscribed with a somewhat cryptic message, the tiles themselves are license plate-sized rectangles made of linoleum, tar paper, asphalt crack filler and an unknown form of glue, and embedded flush into the pavement. They are most often white but can be found imbued with colors, and are sometimes accompanied by smaller adjacent tiles bearing an additional, mostly incomprehensible message.

How the tiles got into the street is a bit of a mystery, as no one has ever been seen pressing them into the pavement. Then again, no one apparently saw the Mafia’s “boss of all bosses” Big Paul Castellano and his driver Thomas Bilotti shot to death in front of a packed Sparks Steakhouse on busy East 46th Street in Manhattan either. Timing is everything, I guess.

National Public Radio, The Philadelphia Inquirer and local news affiliates have reported on these enigmatic pieces of graffiti, which are scattered about two dozen locations and bear, for the most part, the following inscription:

TOYNBEE IDEA
IN KUBRICK’S 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER

The Toynbee Tiles were thought to be the work of a lone, local street artist, but three dozen or so have been found in New York City, and tiles have also turned up in Boston, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. — one only a block from the White House. One might suspect the artist is piling up frequent traveler miles on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor run, but at least one tile has been found in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Atlantic City, and Aberdeen and Edgewood, Maryland. Apparently tired of the harsh winter weather — and willing to do something about it — tiles have also been spotted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Santiago, Chile; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. A tile found next to a Toynbee Tile in Rio (by the Sea-o) bore the curious inscription:

Escriva: Toynbee A,
2624 S. 7th Street
Phila, PA, 19148-4610,
USA

This, as it turns out, is a real address in South Philadelphia, though the occupant is not A. Toynbee and he refuses to discuss the subject of tiles, regardless of their origin.

So who, then, is this “A. Toynbee” of the “TOYNBEE IDEA” portion of the inscription? Well, the word on the street is that he is Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975), the late British historian who harbored some unconventional views on civilizations and on raising the dead. Among his more noted quotes:

  • The human race’s prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenseless against tigers than they are today when we have become defenseless against ourselves.
  • Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.
  • I do not believe that civilizations have to die because civilization is not an organism. It is a product of wills.

The second part of the inscription on the Toynbee Tiles, “IN KUBRICK’S 2001,” is a reference to the late film director Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the remaining portions of the inscription, “RESURRECT DEAD/ON PLANET JUPITER” may bring to mind the ending of Kubrick’s movie, there have been some other suggestions that are intriguing:

  • A brief blurb published in the May 14, 1983, edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer spoke of a man named James Morasco, a local carpenter whose otherwise unknown group, the Minority Association, campaigned to resurrect dead Earthlings on the planet Jupiter.
  • In the early 1980’s David Mamet wrote a short play titled 4 A.M., about a radio talk show host conversing with a “lone nut” who cross-referenced Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and resurrecting the dead on Jupiter.
  • Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote a short story, The Toynbee Convector, that alludes to Toynbee’s idea that in order to survive, humankind must always aim far beyond what is practically possible, in order to reach something barely within reach.
  • Arthur C. Clarke’s short story Jupiter V contains elements in common with 2001 — the screenplay of which he wrote along with Kubrick — and mentions Toynbee several times.

Tiles have been known to contain additional messages that delve deep into their author’s paranoia and ambiguity over media giants John Knight of Knight-Ridder News Service, NBC, CBS, Group ‘W’ Westinghouse, KYW Radio, Time, Time Warner, Fox and Universal.

Though much speculation centers on Morasco as the source of the tiles, his widow flatly denies his involvement; that, however, has not stopped a Philadelphia production company from proceeding with a documentary about Morasco and the Toynbee Tiles.

What the tiles have given rise to, though, is a lot of speculation. Who is actually responsible for laying the tiles and why? Theories suggest everything from the Bahá’í faith to extraterrestrial intervention. In any event, it certainly is but one more reason to visit Philadelphia.

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