The picture above (larger version here) was taken early one weekday morning. The tiles shown sit squarely on Park Avenue in Manhattan, just south of 55th Street, in the middle of the southbound lane. The tiles contain two messages: (1) “House of Hades, one man versus media’s henchmen in society, 2010” and (2) in the white boxes on opposite corners, “I will not rest until these butchers pay for everything they’ve done.” Similar messages have on roadways appeared throughout Manhattan (for example, seen here), Washington, D.C., and even in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Most of the early messages appeared on streets in Philadelphia, where they are still somewhat common. In total, several hundred tile sets have been discovered in a few dozen American cities and at least four South America capitals.
What are they? These are called Toynbee Tiles, and the mystery behind them is as odd as their messages.
First discovered in the 1980s, these tiles all follow the same general motif — a rectangular box of text using an eclectic font, strange if not downright poor command of the English language, and a disjointed writing style. The messages vary in subject but typically involve some sort of conspiracy theory, with the alleged evil doers being the media (as seen above), the former Soviet Union (see this one found in Washington, D.C.; the bottom tab says “As media U.S.S.R. and Fronts are against it”), and others. On particular set of tiles — believed to be an outlier — contains an anti-Semitic screed targeting executives of the Knight-Ridder conglomerate of newspapers. And others accuse the United States and its government of conspiracies sans detail.
Most of the tile sets refer to the “Toynbee idea” — which gives the tiles their name — as well as to “Kubrick’s 2001.” Some also refer to “Planet Jupiter.” These phrases are most likely references to a Ray Bradbury story, The Toynbee Convector; Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001; and, well, the planet Jupiter. The Toynbee Collector takes the ideas of the late British historian Arnold Toynbee, and, in a sci-fi setting, makes the case for engaging the future by taking leaps into the unknown. Combined with the storyline of 2001, there is a good chance that these tiles somehow, some way, are advocating for the colonization of Jupiter. This theory is buttressed by the existence of a play written by David Mamet in 1983 — just before the tiles began to appear — where a fictional caller to a radio show makes exactly that argument, using Kubrick’s, Toynbee’s, and Bradbury’s works as a basis for their argument. (The radio host, in homage to Larry King, dispenses with the argument quickly, noting various holes in its logic.)
Who is behind the tiles? At this point, most likely a copycat (or a series of them). But the original ones were probably the work of a reclusive Philadelphian named Sevy Verna who also broadcast similar theories via shortwave radio. (We know little about Verna otherwise.) Verna allegedly deployed the tiles around Philly via a hole in the floor of his car, placing them on the street when in slow or stopped traffic. Ingeniously, one Toynbee tile fan believes that the tiles, were wrapped in tar paper when deployed, hiding their presence. Over time, as cars drove over the tiles, the tar paper would dissolve, leaving only the tiles-as-vandalism behind.
But in total, there are more questions remaining than answers. Perhaps the strangest involves a set discovered in Santiago, Chile, which, according to a 2006 report, read “Escriva: Toynbee A, 2624 S. 7th Street Phila, PA, 19148-4610, USA.” There are no tiles in front of that address, and the residents of the house at that address do not know what the tiles mean, nor why their address is singled out.
From the Archives: Mystery Tome: A whole book whose meaning is unknown.
Related: “The Toynbee Convector,” by Ray Bradbury. Only about $8, but unrated on Amazon and not available on Kindle.