Toynbee Tiles

The I-76 exit ramp for Route 1 South, just outside of Philadelphia, has become a venue for a message too strange to be a joke, yet at the same time too outlandish to be taken seriously. In the pavement on the road is a white inset tile. Slow down and get a closer look and you will see a white square flush with the pavement that displays a cryptic message. In its most complete form it reads, “Toynbee Ideas in Movie 2001 Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter.”

Someone has been pasting these “Toynbee tiles” in the roads of major cities in the eastern U.S. The majority of them are in New York City and in Philadelphia, and others are in Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and even in Boston. They have been spotted as far west as Kansas City, Mo.

The tiles are made through an elaborate process involving layers of tar paper, regular kitchen or bathroom tile and wood glue, and the end result is a permanent stenciled plaque that is cemented into the road with each passing car tire.

So does this street art have anything to tell us? Why in fact, are we slowing down to get a look at a small tile on the road? The message is eerily prophetic but ultimately filled with only loose ideas.

The “Toynbee” mentioned on the tile is almost undoubtedly Arnold J. Toynbee, an English historian (1889-1975). Toynbee was referred to as a “religious historian.” He believed that history is more closely tied to religious movements than anyone would like to admit, and his theory on bringing dead molecules back to life was incorporated into the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick.

While the film does not depict a resurrection on Jupiter, there are a good deal of religious overtones. References to the planet Jupiter as a setting for a rebirth of sorts exists in both the film and in later books written by Arthur C. Clarke, whose short story, “The Sentinel,” was said to be the basis for Kubrick’s movie.

In Philadelphia, the tiles are emblazoned on the pavement of Walnut Street, Chestnut Street, South Street, Broad Street, Sansom Street, and many other streets. They are mainly located in Center city Philadelphia, yet a very intriguing amount have been seen in South Philadelphia, the only known sightings in a residential area. One tile has been spotted in Rio de Janeiro, suggesting that whomever is making them is well off enough to travel internationally-or that there is a South American impostor.

One infamous tile “rant” spotted in Philadelphia, at 16th and Chestnut streets, contained literally an essay, written out on two separate tiles describing the tile maker’s real and imagined enemies. It mentioned the FBI, scheming journalists, the mafia, the Soviet Union, and media conglomerates which were referred to as the “Cult of the Hellion.” The tile has since been paved over.

The mystery tile maker has purportedly been at work since as far back as 1980, and what little evidence there is, suggests that he or she is a Philadelphia native and is working alone.

The most glaring clue to the origin of the tiles came from a tile discovered in Santiago, Chile with a Philadelphia address written on it. The address is on Seventh Street near Oregon Avenue, the same South Philadelphia neighborhood with an unusually high concentration of the plaques.

The society of Toynbee plaque “scholars” is a small group of internet buffs, and while many have tried to follow leads (including visiting the address on Seventh street), no one answer has been found. Somehow the consensus is that it is better left to the imagination.

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