The Toynbee tile I found in Center City.
In the streets of Philadelphia, messages of science fiction and political propaganda lay hidden in plain sight, embedded in asphalt. Mysterious tiles that say “TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOViE `2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER” have been appearing overnight on crosswalks since the 1980s.
The dubbed “Toynbee tiles” have captivated artists and online theorists alike, as the creator of the tiles and their true meaning remain undiscovered. Many theorize that “the tiler” is spreading a message about reviving the dead by permanently embedding their plans in the ground. Others claim it’s simply a rogue street artist making abstract pieces.
I have been interested in the Toynbee tiles for years, but had not had the chance to see one in person until I visited my friends in New York City. While Philadelphia is the hometown of the Toynbee tiles, the tiles have appeared in other major cities in the United States throughout recent years. As someone who’s bewitched by cultural oddities and everything spooky, I decided that October was the perfect time of year to pay homage to the Toynbee tiles. Armed with a handmade map of tile locations and my phone to document the experience on the @ArcadiaU Snapchat, I set out with some of my friends to spot as many Toynbee tiles in Center City as we could find.
Unfortunately, our Toynbee pilgrimage did not go as planned. While we set out with a list of tiles, only one remained intact in the street, and it was barely legible. The method of implanting the Toynbee tiles is not clear, but the prevailing theory is that the tiles are made out of a hardy linoleum and asphalt compound, and were pushed deep into the streets through the force and weight of car tires repeatedly running over them. The only way to remove the tiles is for cities to either cut out the entire chunk of the street or completely pave it over.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that, since 2015, Streets Department of Philadelphia has recognized Toynbee tiles as street art rather than vandalism, but will only preserve tiles if there is “a fast and affordable method for removing them.” Evidently this is not the case, as many of the tiles reported to be in good condition seem to have vanished from their locations as abruptly as they appeared. The single remaining tile my friends and I spotted was on the corner of 9th and Market Street next to the crosswalk, but was severely cracked and damaged due to the years of car tires and pedestrians walking across it.
Despite the destruction it has sustained over the years, I was elated to see it. One of the Toynbee tiles I found in New York City was likely the work of a copycat, as their design was unorthodox to the tiler’s usual style, and it appeared to be relatively new. This one we found, however, was undoubtedly original. It had the red “license plate” design, which is signature to the oldest Toynbee tiles. While I’m no pro evaluator, like from Antiques Roadshow, I think it’s safe to estimate that this one was from the 80s or 90s, judging by the decades of wear.
Seeing an original Toynbee tile in person makes me wonder about the true intentions of the tiler, and what was going through their mind that night many years ago when they tried to immortalize their plans to raise the dead. I am someone who likes to know all the answers, but I fear this is one enigma that may never have a conclusion. The original Toynbee tiles are being swallowed by urban development, and while I’m glad to see less potholes when I drive, I couldn’t help but feel Philadelphia was losing a bit of cultural history each time I went to a reported location and found nothing.
The Toynbee tiles, while undoubtedly cryptic and a little creepy, are part of Philadelphia’s urban lore and history. Their bizarre message should remain preserved, if not on the streets themselves, then at least in a museum display for public viewing.
Even if I didn’t find as many tiles as I’d hoped, the next time I go to Philadelphia, after I look both ways before crossing the street, I’m still going to make sure to take a downward glance. There might just be an urban legend under my feet.