There's a strange little message tile embedded into Oliver Avenue, by the Saks Fifth Avenue. It refers to "Toynbee" and looks like a mosaic. What is this? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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There's a strange little message tile embedded into Oliver Avenue, by the Saks Fifth Avenue. It refers to "Toynbee" and looks like a mosaic. What is this?

Question submitted by: Michael Davies, Squirrel Hill

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You have stumbled — literally — onto a mystery that stretches from Smithfield Street to South America … a mystery that has bedeviled reporters and pedestrians for years … while staunchly refusing to yield any answers.

You won't find any answers here, either.

Embedded into the street, the tile refers to a "Toynbee Idea in Movie 2001." That idea, it seems, is to "resurrect dead on planet Jupiter."

Similar "Toynbee Tiles" have been found in many cities — New York, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, etc. — and their message is cryptic. Toynbee, presumably, refers to Arnold Toynbee, a British historian; 2001 is a Stanley Kubrick film based on a sci-fi novel by Arthur C. Clarke.

None of these things have much to do with resurrecting dead people on Jupiter (though the trippy conclusion of Kubrick's film does suggest a kind of spiritual rebirth). Yet the sheer strangeness has inspired investigations among bloggers and journalists. City Paper itself conducted an investigation back in 2001 (take note, believers in the Universal Mind!). Most recently, the tiles have attracted the attention of a handful of aspiring Philadelphia filmmakers, who are working on a documentary about them.

"Our goal is to explain the history of the tiles, and more importantly to figure out who was doing them and why," says Colin Smith, one of the filmmakers.

The trail is murky, but apparently begins with a 1983 Philadelphia Inquirer column by Clark DeLeon. The piece featured one James Morasco, a self-described social worker who discussed plans to resuscitate the dead on Jupiter, and then convert its atmosphere to something breathable. That may seem a stretch, given Jupiter's poisonous atmosphere and crushing gravity … but if life can exist in Philadelphia, it can exist anywhere.

Morasco apparently told DeLeon that he had founded a "Jupiter colonization organization" whose members included "Me, Eric, [and] Eric's sister who does the typing."

Morasco said nothing about leaving tiles, but sightings began cropping up in the years afterward. Philadelphia had a strong concentration of them, but they appeared in cities across the continent — and even beyond. Toynbee tiles have been found as far away as Chile. In fact, the tile in that South American country featured a mailing address … in Philadelphia.

The house proved a dead end — when City Paper checked it out, it was boarded up —and James Morasco proved elusive as well. The only one listed in the phone book died a few years ago, says Smith, "And he was probably in his 70s at the time the tiles started appearing." When CP tried to reach him in 2001, we were initially mistaken for telemarketers. We called back and explained we were seeking the James Morasco who had theories about how to colonize Jupiter with dead people — and were hung up on again.

Still, Smith's group believes the tiles were made by the same person. For one thing, some of the tiles suggest it. (One depicted on their Web site, www.resurrectdead.com, reads in part, "I'm only one man and when I caught a fatal disease they gloated.") Based on the pattern of tiles, "You can pretty much trace the roads he'd have driven down," Smith says. "Although God knows how the ones in South America got there."

Smith's colleagues solved one mystery — how the hell did those things get there? — after Justin Duerr, the filmmakers' guiding spirit, extracted a fresh one from the street. The messages are carved into linoleum and then assembled into a tar-paper "sandwich" filled with glue and asphalt-crack-filler. The mass is placed on the street and covered with a final layer of tar-paper. Eventually, car traffic rubs the paper off, revealing the tile beneath — which in the meantime has been pressed and baked into the surrounding pavement by sunlight and the weight of traffic.

Smith and his crew hope to release their film a year from now. "I think we're on to a theory that will be satisfactory," he says, though he acknowledges that solving the mystery would be bittersweet. "There aren't too many mysteries left in the world — at least, not as good as this one." Still, he adds, "It's been so long that I've been wondering, 'What the hell is going on with these things?' that I'd be happy to have it resolved."

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