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The Toynbee Tiles of New York City

A strange message is embedded in the streets of dozens of cities across the world, and New York is no exception. The message is contained on a tile surface, and these have come to be referred to as “Toynbee Tiles” due to their numerous references to the famous historian Arnold J. Toynbee. No one is certain who invented the tiles, how this person has traveled to so many places with them, or what their message is supposed to mean. 

Toynbee Tiles made their first appearance in Philadelphia. They quickly turned up in cities all

across America, as well as in a number of foreign nations. There are over 50 of them in Manhattan. The large majority of the tiles feature the same message: “Toynbee Idea in Movie 2001––Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter.” Some are more elaborate, and feature strange political theories and ideologies.

It is believed that the author of the tiles was influenced by a Ray Bradbury science fiction story “The Toynbee Convector.” This short story speaks of the need for humanity to always look forward for ways to survive. Ideas in Kubrick’s classic movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” speak of colonizing Jupiter. While the message on the tiles is vague, at the very least, they reveal that their maker enjoys a good sci-fi story as much as anyone.

Being that the majority of the 130 tiles known to exist are found in Philadelphia, and because a tile found in Santiago, Chile lists a Philadelphia address, it is widely believed that the inventor of the tiles resides in the City of Brotherly Love. The most likely suspect is Philadelphia social worker James Morasco, who died in 2003. Morasco had written a number of Philadelphia newspapers letters in the early ’80s that included language similar to that found on many of the tiles. Many assumed Morasco was responsible for the tiles, although during his lifetime he never admitted it. Curiously, new tiles have continued to appear in the years since his death, only heightening the mystery.

The tiles are affixed to asphalt with a rather ingenious method. They are wrapped in tar paper and coated in glue. Then, they are placed in the middle of busy intersections. As cars drive over the tiles, they are pressed into the asphalt. As the glue dries, they stay affixed in one position. As cars continue to pass over them, they slowly degrade the tar paper, until it has completely peeled away, revealing the messages below.

Many tiles have been destroyed due to road construction, although cities generally don’t spend any money removing them, as their messages contain no vulgarity or profanity.

After so many years of mysterious appearances, Toynbee Tiles have become a cult phenomenon. Dozens of websites chronicle their locations and search for answers as to the identity of their creator and the reason for their existence. None have come up with any concrete facts yet. After all this time, it appears that the Toynbee Tiles may remain a mystery forever.

The large majority of Manhattan’s Toynbee Tiles can be found in Midtown, starting around 36th Street and appearing frequently all the way up to 57th Street. While some have been painted over throughout the years, over 30 Toynbee Tiles have appeared in this twenty-block stretch. Still others are scattered throughout the city, but the group in Midtown is one of the highest concentrations of Toynbee Tiles in the entire world.

You can read about all of New York’s unsolved mysteries and Unexplained Phenomena in our book Weird New York.

Weird New York


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