Few mysteries in the modern era are as fascinatingly bizarre as that of the Toynbee Tile. Stroll through specific neighborhoods in cities along the East Coast and you’ll come across a colorful rectangle embedded into the asphalt featuring some variation of the cryptic phrase, “TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOVIE 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.” A number of inevitable questions come to mind: What is it? How did it get there? And what does it mean?
Showing up on the streets of the eastern U.S. since the 1980s, Toynbee Tiles can be best summarized as a public art project of indefinite purpose, made from linoleum and asphalt sealant. The tiles are believed to have been dropped into the street from a car during the summer months, and car and foot traffic, along with the sealant, act to fix the tiles in place, eventually becoming essentially permanently embedded into the street. And there are hundreds of them that have been placed in various cities throughout the U.S., including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlantic City, New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.
The motivation for spreading these curious tiles across the eastern United States is perhaps the biggest mystery of all, along with the identity of the person responsible for creating and placing them across these cities. A 2011 documentary, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, offers a possible theory about the tiler, though it still leaves the question of why. Or for that matter, what their strange message about Toynbee, 2001, and resurrecting the dead means. The relationship lies somewhere in the connections between the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Ray Bradbury story “The Toynbee Convector,” and the theory by historian Arnold Toynbee that the afterlife is synthetic. Your guess is as good as mine.
Since they first started appearing in Philadelphia in the ‘80s, Toynbee Tiles began to show up in other cities, including as far south as Santiago, Chile, and continued to show up in the U.S. for 30 years. However, since the 2010s, copycat tiles featuring phrases like “HOUSE OF HADES ONE MAN VERSUS AMERICAN MEDIA IN SoCIETY 2017” have been found, with some of them featuring an actual graphic of a street. They might not be the genuine article, but they’re just as fascinating, and have spread even farther—I’ve seen one in my home city of Richmond, Virginia. But even though copycat tiles have become commonplace, many of the original tiles still remain.
Here are some of the places where you can find these mysterious linoleum artifacts. To the best of my knowledge these locations are all up to date, but with cities repaving streets all the time, there’s always a possibility that some of them are no longer visible.
Philadelphia is the city where you’ll find the most Toynbee Tiles, as the city is thought to be the home to the mysterious tiler. In fact, on the Toynbee Idea map, you can see just how many documented tiles there are by the big cluster of dots, with the only comparable city at a distant second being Atlantic City. There are far too many to point out any single spot on the map, but there’s a good chance you’ll see them just by walking around. A tip to guarantee some sightings, though: Take a walk on Chestnut Street between 12th and 16th, and you’ll see one at nearly every intersection. Or walk south starting from Dilworth Park to see even more.
It should come as no surprise, given that Philadelphia provides such a wealth of opportunities to see Toynbee Tiles, that Pittsburgh has also been home to a number of the colorful linoleum tiles over the years. Unfortunately quite a few of them have been paved over since they were originally placed on the street. There are, however, two original Toynbee Tiles that have been salvaged and are being kept on display at the Heinz History Center. There are also some copycat tribute tiles on a few blocks on Boulevard of the Allies between Market and Grant.
The cryptic figure (or figures?) behind the placement of the Toynbee Tiles never made it as far west as the Pacific Ocean as far as we know, though he did make his way a little bit farther west than Philadelphia. A handful of tiles showed up in Cleveland in the 1990s, for instance, and while some of them have fallen victim to road improvements, a few remain, including one at Third and Prospect, and one at 12th and Euclid, near Playhouse Square.
New York City
New York is massive, but keep your eyes peeled in Midtown Manhattan and you might be surprised how many tiles you stumble across. If you start at the Empire State Building and walk north or south on 5th Avenue, you’ll run into your fair share—in fact that’s where I first saw Toynbee Tiles in the wild. But there are a few others spread out around the city, including a few in Times Square.
Atlantic City, at least at one time, had one of the highest concentrations of tiles outside of Philadelphia, so much that someone created a Facebook page of Atlantic County Toynbee Tiles in order to track them. The tiles have been spotted at the corner of North Franklin and Ventnor, Route 9 and Tilton Road, and Delaware and Arctic Avenues.
Jeff Terich is a Richmond, Virginia-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in SPIN, Bandcamp Daily, uDiscover Music, Grammy.com and San Diego Magazine. His Twitter is @1000TimesJeff.