Special Report: Matt Investigates The Mystery of Philadelphia's "Toynbee Tiles"

Matt O'Donnell investigates the strange appearances of these perplexing tiles. They have been found everywhere from Philadelphia, to Saint Louis, to Rio de Janiero and Buenos Aires.

WPVI By Matt O'Donnell

- "Toynbee Idea. Movie 2001. Resurrect Dead. Planet Jupiter." Does this puzzling statement ring a bell? If you ever looked down when you were walking across a number of intersections in Philadelphia, perhaps it does.


I remember seeing one of these tiles plastered on the pavement a few years back. It was in the crosswalk, across the street from Love Park and City Hall. After reading the tile (rather quickly, since I was crossing the street), I think I said to myself: "Now that makes absolutely (no) sense." And then I walked away - just like most people do when they see the sign.

Then, about a month ago, a small story ran on the Associated Press wire about the tiles, basically saying they remain a mystery in terms of what they mean, and who is producing them.

Toynbee tiles, as they are commonly known, have been appearing on big city intersections since the 1980s. As many as 60 of them have appeared in Philadelphia. They have also been spotted in Atlantic City, New York City, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and St. Louis. But there's more.

These tiles have also shown up in major cities of South America. I have seen photos of tiles in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Plus, there has been a sighting in Santiago, Chile. The tile in Buenos Aires can be viewed in our slideshow. It is partly written in Spanish: Toynbee Idea, In Cine 2001, Resucitar Morto, Planet Jupiter.

Here is the really strange part of these sightings in South America. Toynbee investigators claim a tile in Rio de Janiero said: "Escriva: Toynbee A, 2624 S. 7th Street Phila, PA, 19148-4610, USA." They say it was near an actual Toynbee tile, at the same intersection. The tile with the address is also on our slideshow.

Anyway, it is an authentic address in South Philadelphia. We'll get to that later. First, I had to search for the meaning of the Toynbee tiles.


Armed with a digital video camera, I set out one day to find as many of these tiles as possible. I obtained a number of locations from a Toynbee tile website (click on one of the links on the right), and some from word of month. They seemed to be everywhere: Center City, South Philadelphia, the Vine Street Expressway, and the Schuylkill Expressway. Some large, some small, some severely damaged, some in perfect condition. I was able to find 13 of them in a single morning. One striking difference between some of the tiles I observed was the omission of the phrase "raise dead," and the replacement of "resurrect dead" within the text. I would find out more about this anomaly later.

What also struck me was the fact that these tiles should fall into the category of urban vandalism. They are no different than graffiti written on public and private buildings. The tiles do not belong on these street corners. And yet, there they are; someone is putting them there without anyone's permission. I touched most of them with my hands, and they seemed nearly impossible to remove without hardware. I pointed them out to some people walking on the streets. A number of folks seemed quite interested, and maybe even a bit disturbed by the tiles' presence. A number of others just shrugged it off, and kept on walking.

These tiles were too ubiquitous, too strange, too downright weird for me to shrug this whole thing off. Surely, someone else cared enough about this to investigate. I found a film crew in Philadelphia, who fit that profile.


The three filmmakers are Justin Duerr, Colin Smith, and Jon Foy. They run a website called, and have been investigating the strange case of the Toynbee tiles for several years now. You may discredit them as true investigators by their looks and youth, but they seem to have done a thorough job so far, and claim they have a prime suspect for the tile-doer.

Duerr says the tiles began appearing sometime between 1983 and 1987. He believes they are constructed out of true linoleum, asphalt, crack filler, glue and tar paper. While there has never been an instance where a tile-maker has been caught, Duerr claims he missed seeing one being placed on a West Philadelphia street by about five minutes (he crossed an intersection, went into a convenience store, and came back out to find a fresh Toynbee tile at the same intersection that wasn't there before; he says the tile was already affixed to the pavement).

Before we get into what else they told me, I want you to know I flat out asked them if they are behind this whole Toynbee tile business. Each filmmaker denied being the tile-maker, saying most of them were toddlers when they first began showing up in intersections. However, Duerr admitted he had constructed one tile a few years back, just to see if he could do it. He placed it at 44th and Walnut Streets in West Philadelphia. He promises that is the only instance.

As I said, there may have been as many as 60 tiles in Philadelphia; that is according to the filmmakers' own tracking. They believe there may have been as many as 200 tiles across the world. The older ones include the phrase "raise dead," while some newer ones say "resurrect dead." The filmmakers believe that means there is at least one copycat who came into the picture sometime around 2002, changing the word "resurrect" to "raise" in the body text.

As I stated earlier, Toynbee investigators say a tile in Rio de Janiero was found near another tile with an authentic South Philadelphia address. It said: "Escriva: Toynbee A, 2624 S. 7th Street Phila, PA, 19148-4610, USA." The home is in a typical South Philadelphia neighborhood, just above Oregon Avenue. I visited the address myself in June, but no one seemed to be home. I visited again, and a neighbor tells me the person who lives there typically refuses to speak to others, especially reporters. She insists he has nothing to do with the tiles, saying he is weary of making denial after denial to those who visit his rowhome. The filmmakers have also visited the address, and have gotten the same story.

In fact, they are quite positive the South Philadelphia resident is in no way responsible for the tiles. They actually researched the property listing of former owners of the rowhome, and found a man who lived there during the 1980's and worked for Conrail. They figured perhaps he might be responsible, since someone who worked for a rail agency would be able to travel to several US cities with ease, explaining their prevalence in places like New York City, Saint Louis, and Baltimore. However, for one reason or another, the filmmakers do not believe this man is a suspect either.

The person they do suspect remains a secret for now. They say they will reveal the person's identity in their upcoming film, which does not have a release date at this time. While not naming him, they say the person has a connection to the Philadelphia region, and suggested this person is a brilliant artist, while at the same time an incredible loner. They believe the suspect has been making these tiles for his own benefit, seeing this as a fulfilling way to express his artistic tendencies.

Several websites have also pointed the finger at a James J. Morasco. The sites we examined claim he is a Philadelphia social worker who died in 2003, and who had a beef with Knight-Ridder, the newspaper chain that once owned the Inquirer. The sites also say Morasco had an affinity for the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee (more on him in a moment), and the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." One of his stated goals (again, according to these sites), was to resurrect all who had died, take them to Jupiter, and change the gas giant's atmosphere to allow them to live. One site also says Morasco lost his ability to speak shortly before he died.

Action News spoke to a Philadelphia woman who is the widow of a James Joseph Morasco, a man who died in 2003 at the age of 87. Her husband fits the profile featured on the websites. This Mr. Morasco lived in Philadelphia all his life, and lost his voicebox due to cancer. However, he was a carpenter, not a social worker. His widow (who is in her 80's) had no idea what a Toynbee tile was, and was floored when we told her about the internet claims. We even showed her samples of the tiles; she said she had never seen one before. She also told us her husband had no interest in Jupiter, or putting humans on the planet. She had been married to her husband, James J. Morasco, for 62 years. She said she thinks she would have noticed something, if indeed he was the "Toynbee tiler."


Now to the real question: WHAT THE HECK DO THESE TILES MEAN? Let's dissect the tiles. First: "Toynbee idea." This almost certainly refers to Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975), the British historian who had some unconventional views on the rise and fall of civilizations. Among his many famous quotes:

"The human race's prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenseless against tigers than they are today when we have become defenseless against ourselves."

"Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder."

"I do not believe that civilizations have to die because civilization is not an organism. It is a product of wills."

So there you have it. Toynbee is a historian who talks about some far-out concepts related to our society. Perhaps "Toynbee idea" is talking about one of his many theories on man, his place in this world, and what he may or may not do to seek improvement, and sustain his existence.

Second phrase: "Movie 2001." It's a sure bet this is talking about Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," especially since some of the tiles say "Kubrick's 2001," instead of "Movie 2001." As with most of his movies, "2001" has a lot going on, with several motifs about life, humanity, human/computer control, civilization (there's that Toynbee theme), and time travel.

As we said earlier, the third phrase varies between "Raise Dead" and "Resurrect Dead." This one is a bit mysterious, but with a bit of leeway we can perhaps tie it into ideas put forth by Toynbee and Kubrick. Maybe it is referring to raising or resurrecting human beings. Maybe it wants to bring back old ideas that have died. Maybe it is talking about finding a way to sustain humanity, by bringing people back to life. Maybe it is a metaphor to create a more modern, more compassionate, more peaceful, and better society. Whatever it is about, it is far out.

Fourth phrase: "Planet Jupiter," which happens to be the largest (and fourth) planet in the solar system. The gas giant is inhospitable to life, and made mostly of hydrogen and helium (it does not necessarily have a surface like the earth, just gas and clouds). Its presence in the solar system is essential to life on Earth, because its enormous gravitational pull steers comets, asteroids, and other debris away from Earth (some call it the "solar vacuum cleaner"). Could we humans colonize this horrible place one day?

The filmmakers say Toynbee had another saying that could fill in this hole. They say the historian was known to tell people to strive for the impossible, because even though the goal is probably unattainable, one would probably accomplish something quite significant along the way.


What do I think? That's hard to say. Certainly, it seems likely that many of the newer tiles are the work of one or more copycats. It's also quite possible the original Toynbee Tiler is not doing it anymore, maybe for lack of interest, maybe because that person is not with us anymore.

Is it vandalism? Sure, just like the graffiti you see on bridges, road signs, and walls on buildings. Is it art? If you can get past the vandalism part, sure, it could be considered art too.

Does it matter? In the grand scheme of things, no. But it got us talking about it for a little while, didn't it?

By the way, if you have Toynbee tile sightings of your own, snap a picture of one and e-mail them through the link on this page. And if are the Toynbee Tiler yourself, please contact me on the Action News Tipline.

Matt O'Donnell

Action News Team

Matt O'Donnell


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