6 Weird Things Embedded in City Streets

A Toynbee tile near the White House in 1995
A Toynbee tile near the White House in 1995
Elvert Barnes, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Most of us spend our days walking around with our eyes pointed straight ahead or looking around, seeing the rest of the world mostly at eye-level. But there are advantages to looking down, and not just because it helps you avoid stepping on other people’s feet. Strange, wondrous, and occasionally terrible things have been found stuck to the surface of city streets—just take a look at the examples below.

1. Toynbee Tiles

If you have a revolutionary idea to share with the masses, you could write an op-ed in a major paper, talk to a local member of congress, start an activist organization, or pay for a PR campaign. Or, you could carve the message into a square of gummy linoleum and stick it in the street. Whatever floats your boat!

The linoleum method is the one employed by the mysterious creator of the Toynbee Tiles—lettered rectangular plaques that have appeared in dozens of major U.S. cities since the 1980s, as well as in several South American locations. Most of the tiles contain some version of the following message:

TOYNBEE IDEA
IN KUBRICK'S 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER

Tile-followers, and there are a few, generally interpret Toynbee as a reference to 20th century British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, although some think it could refer to the Ray Bradbury short story "The Toynbee Convector." The 2001 is, of course, a reference to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which depicts a voyage to Jupiter.

No one knows who's behind the tiles, and it may not be a single individual. For years, many tile enthusiasts believed they were the work of James Morasco, a Philadelphia carpenter who communicated with the Philadelphia Inquirer in the early 1980s about the idea of resurrecting the dead on the planet Jupiter. But the tiles have continued to appear long after Morasco's death in 2003, and his widow claims he never had anything to do with them.

The story gets much, much weirder. David Mamet claims the idea for the tiles came from one of his plays; many of the tiles contain screeds against the mafia, media, and the Jews; Larry King is somehow involved. For those who are intrigued, the excellent 2011 documentary Resurrect Dead delves deeper into the mystery.

2. The Paris Central Guillotine

It’s been called “the most awful spot in Paris.” These five rectangular indents near the Pére-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris look ordinary enough, but they have a grisly tale to tell. They’re actually slabs that once formed the foundation for the Paris guillotine, which sliced off 69 heads—in public—between 1851 and 1899. (France continued sending people to the guillotine until 1977, but not here.) The guillotine stood at the entrance to the now-demolished Prison de la Roquette, and shut down when the prison itself ended its dark days.

3. The Hess Triangle

The Hess Triangle in NYC
The Hess Triangle in NYC
Nan Palmero, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It may be the ultimate New York-style "screw you, buddy," at least as far as the city's streets are concerned. Where 7th Avenue and Christopher Street cross in Manhattan's West Village, there's a mosaic triangle that takes up about 500 square inches. Its black letters spell out an oddly aggressive message: "Property of the Hess Estate which has never been dedicated for public purposes."

The message, and the triangle, are a remnant of a very minor early 20th century property battle, in which New York City used eminent domain to seize a nearby apartment building when expanding the IRT subway in the late 1910s. The apartment building was owned by Philadelphia landlord David Hess, whose family later noticed that the city’s seizing had left them this one tiny triangle. City authorities asked the family to donate the triangle, but they refused, installing this defiant mosaic instead, in 1922. It’s a little outdated, however: in 1938, the family finally gave up and sold the plot to the owners of Village Cigars for $1000, or $2 per square inch.

4. Jewish Tombstones

During World War II and for decades afterwards, Jewish tombstones in Poland were treated as construction material, plundered from cemeteries to pave streets, courtyards, and passageways, and used to repair walls and curbs. In 2014, the city of Warsaw agreed to return 1000 Jewish tombstones, known as matzevot, that had been used to build a pergola and stairs inside a city park.

Polish photographer Łukasz Baksik spent several years documenting the tombstones’ appropriation as paving material and masonry, with the results published in a book called Matzevot for Everyday Use. Meanwhile, a nonprofit called From the Depths runs the Matzeva Project, which aims to find and restore some of the millions of gravestones still hidden in Poland, as well as the often-forgotten Jewish cemeteries from which the stones were stolen.

5. Potholes Crying out for Help

Potholes are the mosquito of urban infrastructure problems: minor but persistently irritating. Over the past few years, several people have been trying new approaches to getting them repaired. In Panama City, the TV show Telemetro Reporta launched a project in 2015 installing motion-sensitive detectors in the city’s potholes. When a car ran over the sensor, the device automatically sent a tweet to the Ministry of Public Works. In Chicago, artist Jim Bachor took a more delicious approach, creating mosaics of popsicles and other items inside potholes both in Chicago and Jyväskylä, Finland. The crudest—but potentially most effective—technique comes from Manchester, where a man who identified himself to the BBC only as “Wanksy” drew penis shapes around potholes. “They [potholes] don't get filled. They'll be there for months,” Wanksy said. “Suddenly you draw something amusing around it, everyone sees it and it either gets reported or fixed." The local city council spokesperson called the drawings “incredibly insulting.”

6. Tourist-friendly QR codes

It’s not as weird as the other entries on the list, but possibly more useful. Rio is known for its stunning beaches, spectacular Carnival, and the black-and-white sidewalk mosaics around the city known as Portuguese pavement. In 2013, the city began installing QR codes using the same black-and-white stone used to create decorative images of fish, waves, and vegetation. The city installed about 30 of the codes at beaches, scenic hotspots and historic sites, and tourists can use the codes alongside a smartphone app to get background information in Portuguese, Spanish, and English.

This list first appeared in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

Eagle Creek's Durable Caldera Line of Suitcases Can Digitally Track Your Travels

Eagle Creek's Caldera line of bags comes in both black and green.
Eagle Creek's Caldera line of bags comes in both black and green.
Eagle Creek

I always have a little anxiety when I check a suitcase for a flight. What if it gets damaged, or worse—lost?

Eagle Creek is taking on both challenges with its new Caldera line of suitcases. Thanks to a polycarbonate back shell and a body made of recycled Cordura poly that is tear-, abrasion-, and water-resistant, the bags are lightweight but tough.

They’re also full of smart details: reflective, water-resistant zippers; a proprietary system that keeps the handle from being crushed; personalizable rubber side handles; side straps with aluminum hardware that can be tucked away; and a “coat keeper” that allows you to secure your coat to the top of the bag as you’re rolling through the airport.

The Eagle Creek Caldera Wheeled Duffel.
The Eagle Creek Caldera's "coat keeper" in action.
Eagle Creek

But the thing that really got me excited about the Caldera line is TripSync. Each bag in the Caldera line is equipped with an NFC chip that allows you to report your bag if it’s lost and tracks your trips for a cool digital reminder of where you've been.

Eagle Creek sent me the 100-liter wheeled duffel to test, and I brought it along with me on a trip to Israel. I wasn’t able to check out TripSync (which was still in beta at the time of my trip) but here’s how it works: First, if your phone requires it, download an app that will read the NFC chip. Then, hold your phone near the luggage tag, which will launch a video describing the features of your bag and how to care for it. (There’s also a handy diagram that will tell you which Eagle Creek packing cubes you need, and the way to orient them, to get the most space out of your bag.)

After the video, you’ll sign up for an account. Don’t forget to register your bag—it’s the only way you can report it as lost if it goes missing. You may also need to adjust your settings to allow TripSync to get your location so it can accurately track your travel.

Before you check your bag or hop on the plane, scan your bag and make sure you’re logged in, then click “start trip.” After that, you’ll need to scan your bag and click “add stop” or “end trip” to log your travels. (These steps are important—the bag isn’t actively being tracked by GPS, so trip length is based on the points you log and determined by “the most direct path between the points,” according to Eagle Creek’s website. “The total miles traveled between each point you create become your total miles traveled for that one trip.”)

If you need to report your bag lost, you do so by logging in and clicking the “report lost” button. When someone finds the bag, all they need to do is scan it with their phone to contact you; none of your information will be revealed. When your bag is back in your hands, you can mark it as found.

Eagle Creek Caldera luggage.
If your bag gets lost, whoever finds it just has to tap their smartphone on the ID tag and you'll be contacted.
Eagle Creek

Though I wasn’t able to try TripSync, I was still impressed by the physical features of the bag. The bag is durable as promised, and spacious—I had plenty of room for everything I wanted to bring, with space to spare for souvenirs. (The suitcase is also expandable via a zipper, but I didn’t have to use that feature this time.) Thanks to the sturdy handle and rugged wheels, the bag handled great both empty and when it was fully loaded, both on smooth streets and uneven terrain. And as a person who struggles with what to do with her coat when wheeling all of her luggage through the airport, I found the coat keeper to be especially helpful. I can’t wait to take the bag on another trip to try out TripSync for myself.

If you’re not in the market for a carry-on or checked suitcase, Eagle Creek also has a Caldera backpack as well as a convertible bag that can be both worn as a backpack and rolled like a traditional carry-on suitcase.

The bags come in black and green; they start at $279 for the backpack and go up to $569 for the four-wheeled 100L model. You can buy them on EagleCreek.com.

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10 Enchanting Places That Align with the Vernal Equinox

A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On Thursday, March 19, the vernal equinox heralded the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Ancient civilizations built calendars and observatories to track the movements of the stars and mark this monumental time. Now, people still partake in a variety of traditions and rituals to honor the day when light and dark become equal. To take your celestial celebrations to the next level, here are 10 places that align with the spring equinox.

1. On the vernal equinox, a massive snake appears on the temple at Chichen Itza.

Legend says that on the spring and fall equinoxes, the Maya city of Chichen Itza receives an otherworldly visitor: Kukulcan, the feathered serpent deity. On these days, a shadowy snake slithers down the side of the god's namesake pyramid. As the temple darkens, a single strip of light stretches from the top of the northern staircase to the snake head resting at the bottom, creating the illusion of a wriggling reptile.

2. A beam of light illuminates a petroglyph within Arizona’s Boulder House each vernal equinox.

The Boulder House in Scottsdale, Arizona, looks like a strange home wedged amid a jumble of rocks. But it’s actually a modern house built around a sacred Native American site. The Empie family, who bought the parcel of desert land in the 1980s, commissioned architect Charles Johnson to transform the cluster of 1.6-billion-year-old boulders into a functional house. Johnson crafted a unique structure, incorporating the rocks into the house’s foundation and preserving the prehistoric carvings. On the equinox, sunlight pierces between two boulders in the unusual abode, striking a spiral petroglyph on the wall to create a dazzling piece of home decor.

3. On the vernal equinox, a group of Moai on Easter Island stare directly at the sunset.

Seven Moai gaze face toward the horizon
On the equinox, these Moai stare directly at the setting sun.
abriendomundo/iStock via Getty Images

People aren’t the only ones who pause to watch the sun slip beneath the horizon on the first day of spring. On Easter Island, at a sacred site called Ahu Akivi, a line of seven Moai—the island’s giant, mysterious heads—gaze directly at the point at which the sun sets in the sky on the equinox.

4. Each vernal equinox, light drenches a petroglyph-filled cairn at Loughcrew.

The hills of Loughcrew, one of Ireland’s four main passage tomb sites, are crowned by 5000-year-old megalithic structures. At dawn on the equinox, sunlight fills Cairn T, a passage tomb carved with astoundingly well-preserved examples of Neolithic art. As the light dissolves the darkness, the cup marks that dimple its walls and the symbols adorning its back stones blaze into view. The illumination lasts for about 50 minutes, giving observers ample time to take turns squeezing into the cairn.

5. On the vernal equinox, light streams through one of the Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples.

The Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples on Malta’s southern coast are archaeological wonders. They were built between 3600 and 2500 BCE and are believed to be among the world’s oldest freestanding stone buildings. Not much is known about the people who created these megalithic masterpieces, though it’s clear they constructed one of the temples with an eye to the heavens. On the equinox, the sun streams through the South Temple’s main doorway, flooding the structure’s major axis with light.

6. On the vernal equinox, the sun sits directly atop the main temple at Angkor Wat.

Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat would be a magical experience any day. Crowds hush as colorful hues paint the world’s largest religious structure with a gilded glow. Dawn at Angkor Wat is even more special on the equinoxes. Then, the sun rises behind the main temple before briefly seeming to balance on its tip like a fiery halo.

7. On the spring equinox, the sun rises through the entrance to Stonehenge Aotearoa.

Stonehenge has inspired replicas around the globe—including as far away as New Zealand. Stonehenge Aotearoa, which opened in 2005, was built by the Phoenix Astronomical Society. The structure is an astronomical tool for observing the local skies, and blends modern astronomy with ancient starlore. If you stand in the center of the circle on the Southern Hemisphere's vernal equinox, you can watch the sun rise directly through the Sun Gate, two carved pillars that flank the entrance to the henge.

8. The shadow of the intihuatana at Machu Picchu disappears at noon on the equinox.

A curious stone structure stands atop a temple at Machu Picchu. It’s one of the rare surviving intihuatanas that wasn’t demolished by the Spanish conquistadors. This “hitching post of the sun” is believed to have been an astronomical tool. At noon on the equinox, the granite pillar’s shadow briefly vanishes. Unfortunately, the invaluable object now looks a bit battered. In 2000, a crane toppled into the intihuatana during the filming of a beer commercial, smashing part of it.

9. At sunrise on the spring equinox, the sun bursts through the door of a temple at Dzibilchaltún.

Sunrise at Dzibilchaltún
Each equinox, the sun appears within the door of the Temple of the Seven Dolls.
renatamsousa/iStock via Getty Images

Though now reduced to a medley of ruins dotting the jungle, Dzibilchaltún was once the longest continually inhabited Maya administrative and ceremonial city. The star attraction here is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, a building named for the mysterious human-like figures discovered inside. At dawn on the equinox, the sun shines through the temple’s main door. It’s believed the sacred structure was aligned with the equinoxes to mark the beginning of the planting season and the end of the harvesting season.

10. The 'Woodhenge' at the Cahokia Mounds aligns with the sunrise on the equinox.

During the Mississippian cultural period, Cahokia's population exceeded that of London. In addition to giant pyramids, the North American city also featured circles of wooden posts, since dubbed “Woodhenge.” The wooden markers were likely used to track the sun’s movements. One of the posts aligns with the equinoxes, as well as with the front of Monks Mound. On sunrise on the equinox, it looks as though the sun is emerging from the enigmatic earthwork.

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