Someone is planting bizarre messages on tiles embedded in the road surface. What the tiles are made of, who is placing them and how they get away with it -- all of these questions remain unanswered. What is known is this: We are not alone. The mysterious tiles have been spotted in roads throughout the Western Hemisphere.
If you go to Fifth and Walnut streets or Sixth and Walnut streets, you will see, flush with the pavement in multi-colored stenciling, two tiles that declare, "Toynbee Idea in Movie 2001. Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter." A third tile, at Main and Fourth streets, says, "Toynbee Idea in Kubrick's 2001. Resurrect Dead in Planet Jupiter."
What do English historian Arnold Toynbee and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, creator of Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, have to do with resurrecting the dead on planet Jupiter? Who is behind this conundrum stuck in the macadam? And is it something from which a strong mayor can save us?
'Some weird, strange saying'
The red, white and blue Toynbee Tiles have appeared in Philadelphia, New York City, Baltimore and Washington D.C., each city having at least 25 embedded in intersections within their municipal boundaries.
It doesn't stop there. Similar tiles have been spotted in Cleveland, Boston, Pittsburgh, Atlantic City, Indianapolis, Atlanta and as far south as Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, and Santiago, Chile.
The tiles often include equally puzzling footnotes. One in Newark, N.J. commands the reader, "Submit. Obey." In Cleveland, one states, "Thanks. Goodbye." In New York, you'll find: "Murder every journalist, I beg you." The tile at Sixth and Walnut in Cincinnati has a footnote that's barely discernable: "You Must Make + Glue Tiles!! You!! As Media U.S.S.R."
Inevitably, the Internet is abuzz with speculation about the Toynbee Tiles -- their clandestine installation, their material substance, their global proliferation, the connection between Toynbee and Kubrick. Many seem interested, but no one knows with any certainty what they are.
Cincinnati officials are as clueless as everyone else. Dennis Maddock, downtown street inspector, has seen the tiles and even photographed them but is still scratching his head. Maddock surmised the tiles began popping up over a year ago but confessed to knowing very little else.
"I've seen them," Maddock said. "They say different weird things. I have no idea what they are."
Sgt. Emmett Gladden of the Safety Director's Office is baffled. Shown photos of the tiles, Gladden said, "That was the first time I'd ever seen one."
Sgt. David Turner, supervisor of police intelligence, wasn't much help in interpreting the hidden meaning of the tiles, but he said police are not worried.
"I saw the signs," Turner said. "I have no idea what they mean. As far as we're concerned, there's no meaning for us, so we're not going to do anything about them."
Do the signs pose any public hazard or threat?
"No," Turner said. "People write all kinds of things out there -- graffiti and that kind of thing.
A lot of it's personal meaning, but we don't think it was any kind of threat. We'd look at it if there was an outright threat, but it's just some weird, strange saying."
Dave Berens, one of the city's civil engineering technicians, was equally in the dark.
"We have no idea who put them there or how long they have been there," Berens stated in an e-mail message.
Later he elaborated over the phone.
"I went down there and looked at them," Berens said. "I asked around and no one seemed to know anything about them. I talked to one of our engineers for the downtown area. He originally thought that they were something the Performing Arts Center had done."
Dave Rupe, supervisor of engineering, summed it up for many observers.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said.
Mayor Charlie Luken, a Democrat facing reelection, is playing the issue of the Toynbee Tiles straight down the middle. Asked, for example, if he thinks resurrecting the dead on Jupiter is a good idea, Luken declined to be interviewed.
City Councilman Pat DeWine, however, had some thoughts.
"I don't know much about your tiles," DeWine said. "My only thought is that I'm just happy someone is paving the streets around here."
Where does DeWine, a Republican, stand on the issue of raising the dead on Jupiter?
"Uh, well, it depends on the options," he said.
Councilman Jim Tarbell, a Charterite, was more straightforward.
"I think resurrecting the dead on planet Jupiter is an excellent idea," Tarbell said. "Considering everything else we're dealing with, why not? This is a welcome relief from what else is going on. We've developed 40 percent of the land mass in Warren County in the last 10 years. What's that tell you? We're running out of room. We can't do this anymore: The dead have got to be buried on Jupiter at the very least."
'You don't want to find the answer'
I first discovered one of these tiles when I moved to Cincinnati in 1998. Working in the Schmidt Building, I crossed Sixth and Walnut every day. At the time, I didn't think much of the tile, dismissing it as nothing more than typical street graffiti. It never occurred to me that the tile could be, as one Scientologist recently put it, "some graffiti from Mars."
A year later, I was researching Toynbee's writings when I came across a Web site devoted entirely to collecting and cataloging the whereabouts and condition of Toynbee Tiles around the world. Journalists in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore have investigated the enigmatic phenomena, but none has brought any light to the mystery. Rob Hiaasen, staff writer for The Baltimore Sun, was so frustrated he asked in print that anyone, anywhere, contact him with information about the tiles. But no one, to this date, has claimed responsibility.
Bill O'Neill has had a passion for the Toynbee Tiles ever since he was an undergraduate at Temple University in Philadelphia. In 1992, he built a Web site titled "What Is It?" The site catalogues information about the tiles. He soon learned he was hardly the only person obsessing about them.
"Before I knew it, other people who had done Internet searches for the kind of stuff that's on the signs found my site," O'Neill says. "They started sending me more submissions and the site grew from there."
O'Neill has received thousands of e-mail messages and pictures of the tiles. Many are simple notifications of a sighting. But once in a while O'Neill received information that could lead somewhere. The closest he got to solving the mystery was an anonymous e-mail about a tile in Chile with a Philadelphia address.
But O'Neill was unable to gird his loins enough to start knocking on doors.
"I was always afraid to go ahead and check it out," he said, "because it's one of those things where you've been searching so long, you don't want to find the answer. Some people have said they'd written the address and hadn't gotten a response back."
The address on the Chilean tile is legitimate. After making a few phone calls to the Philadelphia Recorder of Deeds Office, I learned the name of the property owner, Verna Severino, but was unable to contact her or the person living at the address.
So far O'Neill, who now lives in Atlanta, has had little luck unearthing key elements to solving the Toynbee Tile mystery.
"For as long as I've been doing this," he said, "no one has ever claimed to have done or know who has done it."
But O'Neill was closer than he thought. One of the e-mail messages he received in 1999 had a 1983 newspaper article titled "Theories: Wanna Run That By Me Again?" by Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Clark DeLeon. The article mentions a man named James Morasco who'd been trying to contact media outlets around the city about his theories.
Morasco was reportedly a social worker who believed we could colonize Jupiter "by bringing all the people on Earth who had ever died back to life and then changing Jupiter's atmosphere to allow them to live." Morasco discovered these ideas while reading the works of Arnold Toynbee. He also believed Toynbee's ideas of resurrecting dead people's molecules were depicted in Stanley Kubrick's monumental film of regeneration and growth, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In the Philadelphia telephone directory, only one James Morasco is listed in the entire city. I called his number, and an elderly woman answered the phone.
May I talk to Mr. Morasco?
"He can't talk," the woman said. "He has problems with his throat."
What kind of problems?
"He had his voice box removed," she said.
I see. How did he get sick?
"We don't know," she said.
It's something of a mystery?
"Right," she said.
A 'tantalizing detail'
Perhaps you are beginning to grasp the seriousness of it all. The only James Morasco listed in Philadelphia has been silenced -- right there in the City of Brotherly Love.
Another message O'Neill received in 1999 was from Nathan J. Mehl, who claimed to have met a man in Philadelphia embroiled in the idea of raising the dead on Earth and transporting them to Jupiter. He posted wheat-pasted hand bills, with a message similar to the tiles, at bus stops around Philadelphia, according to Mehl.
Mehl, who was 17 years old at the time, forgot the man's name.
"I do remember one tantalizing detail, though," Mehl wrote. "He made repeated reference to performing short-wave radio broadcasts on a regular basis."
Apparently acclaimed playwright David Mamet heard such a broadcast. In his 1985 collection of short plays and monologues, Goldberg Street, Mamet wrote a three-page skit, titled "4 A.M.," in which a radio talk show host talks to a man obsessing over Toynbee, 2001 and dead people.
Of course, those familiar with 2001 know Kubrick adapted Arthur C. Clarke's short story, "The Sentinel," to create his masterful film. What most don't know is Clarke was a contemporary of Toynbee and shared with the historian philosophies infused with Christian tenets of birth, life, death and resurrection.
Or something like that.
What does it all mean? We might never know.
Here's what we do know: Someone has somehow been able to embed at least three tiles in the asphalt of major intersections downtown, all of which convey a cryptic message about resurrecting the dead on Jupiter, a phenomenon putting Cincinnati on some kind of psychic plane with cities around the world.
And our mayor has nothing to say about it. ©