Toynbee Tiles

The Toynbee tiles are messages of unknown origin found embedded in asphalt of streets in about two dozen major cities in the United States and four South American capitals. Since the 1980s, several hundred tiles have been discovered. They are generally about the size of an American license plate (roughly 30 cm by 15 cm), but sometimes considerably larger. They contain some variation on the following inscription: ‘TOYNBEE IDEA, IN MOViE `2001, RESURRECT DEAD, ON PLANET JUPITER.’

Some of the more elaborate tiles also feature cryptic political statements or exhort readers to create and install similar tiles of their own. The material used for making the tiles was long a mystery, but evidence has emerged that they may be primarily made of layers of linoleum and asphalt crack-filling compound. Toynbee-tile enthusiasts believe that a native Philadelphian created the tiles because of the large number that appear in the city, their apparent age, and the variety of carving styles.

‘Toynbee’ may refer to historian Arnold J. Toynbee or Ray Bradbury’s short story ‘The Toynbee Convector’ (about a man who travels to a utopic future). Bradbury likely references Arnold J. Toynbee, who proposed that civilization must have a challenge to respond to in order to flourish. ‘ ‘The Toynbee Convector,’ alludes to Toynbee’s idea that in order to survive, humankind must always rush to meet the future, i.e., believe in a better world, and must always aim far beyond what is practically possible, in order to reach something barely within reach. Thus the message might be that humanity ought to strive to colonize Jupiter—as in Kubrick’s work—or something greater, to survive. Some tiles allude to a mass conspiracy between the press (including newspaper magnate John S. Knight of Knight-Ridder), the U.S. government, the USSR (even in tiles made after the Soviet Union’s dissolution), and Jews. The writing is of a similar style and poor quality.

According to letters written by the tiler, allegedly uncovered by Toynbee tile researchers in Philadelphia in 2006, ‘Toynbee’s idea’ stems from a passage in Arnold Toynbee’s book ‘Experiences’: ‘Human nature presents human minds with a puzzle which they have not yet solved and may never succeed in solving, for all that we can tell. The dichotomy of a human being into ‘soul’ and ‘body’ is not a datum of experience. No one has ever been, or ever met, a living human soul without a body… Someone who accepts—as I myself do, taking it on trust—the present-day scientific account of the Universe may find it impossible to believe that a living creature, once dead, can come to life again; but, if he did entertain this belief, he would be thinking more ‘scientifically’ if he thought in the Christian terms of a psychosomatic resurrection than if he thought in the shamanistic terms of a disembodied spirit.’

Another explanation may be that the tiles quote a short play by David Mamet, ‘4 A.M.,’ written in 1983 and published in the collection ‘Goldberg Street: Short Plays and Monologues’ in 1985. In the play, a radio host (inspired by Larry King) impatiently listens to a caller who contends that the movie ‘2001,’ based on the writings of Arnold Toynbee, speaks of the plan to reconstitute life on Jupiter. The radio show host quickly points out the factual errors in the caller’s assertion and the logical fallacies of his plan. Mamet has spoken of his belief that the tiles are an homage and seems flattered by them. Researchers for a 2011 documentary about the Toynbee tiles, ‘Resurrect Dead,’ claim to have uncovered several pieces of evidence that predate Mamet’s play, including a 1980 call by the tiler to Larry King’s radio show.

Additionally, this documentary cites a newspaper article purportedly published in ‘The Philadelphia Inquirer’ on March 13, 1983, ‘Theories: Wanna run that by me again?’ by Clark DeLeon, which recounts a conversation between DeLeon and one James Morasco: ‘Call me skeptical, but I had a hard time buying James Morasco’s concept that the planet Jupiter would be colonized by bringing all the people on Earth who had ever died back to life. Morasco says he is a social worker in Philadelphia and came across the idea while reading a book by historian Arnold Toynbee, whose theory on bringing dead molecules back to life was depicted in the movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ That’s why he’s contacting talk shows and newspapers to spread the message. He’s even founded a Jupiter colonization organization called the Minority Association.’

A complex of four tiles was once located at 16th and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia. Consisting of four panels of barely-legible italic printing, this work can be interpreted as a lengthy complaint about the artist’s enemies. A possible transcription of its message reads: ‘John Knight Ridder is the Philadelphia thug hellion Jew who’d hated this movements guts- for years- takes money from the Mafia to make the Mafia look good in his newspapers so he has the Mafia in his back pocket. John Knight sent the Mafia to murder me in May 1991 [illegible] journalists [illegible] then gloated to my face about death and Knight Ridder great power to destroy. In fact John Knight went into hellion binge of joy over Knight-Ridder’s great power to destroy. I secured house with blast doors and fled the country in June 1991.’

‘NBC attorneys journalists and security officials at Rockefeller Center fraudulently under the ‘Freedom of Information Act’ all [illegible] orders NBC executives got the U.S. federal district attorney’s office who got FBI to get Interpol to establish task force that located me in Dover England. Which back home ‘Inquirer’ got union goons from their own employees union to [illegible] down a ‘sports journalist.’ Who with ease bashed in lights and windows of neighborhood car- as well as men outside my house. They are stationed there still waiting for me. NBC CBS group ‘W’ Westinghouse, Time, Time Warner, Fox, Universal all of the ‘Cult of the Hellion’ each one were Much worse than Knight-Ridder ever was[,] mostly hellion Jews. When K.Y.W. and NBC executives told John Knight the whole coven gloated in joyous fits on how their Soviet pals found a way to turn it into a…’

The original tiles appear to be the work of a single person, initially thought to be James Morasco (1915 – 2003), a Philadelphia carpenter: in the early 1980s, someone by this name tried to interest Philadelphia-area newspapers in a similar idea. Morasco would have been in his 70s when most of the tiles were laid. Morasco died in 2003, but new tiles have since been seen in Philadelphia. ‘Resurrect Dead’ presents evidence that the tiler was reclusive Philadelphia resident Severino ‘Sevy’ Verna, using the name ‘James Morasco’ as an alias. Verna purportedly placed the tiles through a hole in the floor of his car while broadcasting a message via short wave radio about his theories. Toynbee-tile enthusiast Justin Duerr claims to have once found and examined a newly-installed tile. This new tile was wrapped in tar paper and placed on a busy street early in the morning. From this find and other evidence, Duerr believes that the pressure exerted by automobiles driving over the tile for weeks on end pushes the tile into the road surface. Eventually, the tar paper wears away, exposing the message.

Tiles that are located in the middle of busy streets and highway on- and off-ramps tend to wear away quickly and also can become victims of resurfacing; smaller tiles and those located close to pedestrian crosswalks tend to be in better condition. Hundreds of tiles have been destroyed during the course of regular road maintenance. The city of Chicago has declared the tiles ‘vandalism’ and removes any tiles that it finds, treating them ‘no different than graffiti.’ A large tile complex, the tile maker’s apparent rant against his enemies, was destroyed when Chestnut Street in Philadelphia was repaved. One tile located at the corners of Talcahuano and Santa Fé streets in Buenos Aires, Argentina, since at least 1996 is damaged and unreadable, apparently broken up by traffic-induced surface distortion of the asphalt on which it was laid, which softens during the hot summer.

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