Making a statement

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it

David Matthews / October 05, 2017
David Matthews

Buyer beware

Life isn’t always fair. Sometimes things go your way, and sometimes you get screwed over by a municipal tax sale property auction.

Such was the case with Norma Parnell when she bid on a “vacant lot” in her neighborhood at a New York City property auction. She bid $30,000 and won the property site unseen, with plans to sell pieces to adjoining homeowners.

Months later she discovered that the city had made a mistake and her “vacant lot” was actually William Court, a 280-ft residential street with almost a dozen homes. 

The city offered to refund Parnell her $30,000, but she declined, instead asking full market value for the street, which according to her annual tax bill is $257,000.

So far the city is sticking with its original offer, saying that paying market value would not be “an appropriate use of taxpayer money.”

That means Parnell is stuck paying $1,000 per year in taxes for a property she was misled into buying. “I didn’t want a street,” she told CBS New York. “I wanted a lot.”

You can say that again.

Street sale

Wealthy San Francisco residents were part of another municipal mix-up this summer when they learned the city sold their street.

Thanks to a little-noticed San Francisco Treasurer’s Internet tax auction, a private street lined by 35 megamillion-dollar mansions called Presidio Terrace was purchased by a young couple in San Jose for $90,000.

And now that they own all the “common ground,” including the sidewalks and street, the couple is looking to cash in on their investment.

Residents of the exclusive community, which have included Sen. Dianne Feinstein, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and the late Mayor Joseph Alioto, may soon have to pay a fee to park on their own street.

The sale came about due to a $14/year property tax bill that the community’s homeowners association has failed to pay for the past 30 years.

However, the association said that the only reason it didn’t pay up is because the city has been mailing the bill to the wrong address since the 1980s.

So without contacting the homeowner’s association or residents, the city put the street up for sale to recover the unpaid back taxes totalling a whopping $994.

Residents are looking into legal options to get the sale overturned, but the Treasurer’s office said the sale was valid and not much can be done now.

A riddle wrapped up in an enigma

When legal channels don’t work, sometimes the best response is an artistic one.

One of the most enduring and intriguing artistic statements began in the 1980s when linoleum tiles etched with mysterious messages began appearing on city streets throughout the U.S.

Each colorful mosaic tile is glued right onto a roadway surface with a variation of this cryptic phrase:


These “Toynbee Tiles” were originally discovered in Philadelphia, but hundreds more have since been spotted throughout the Midwest, New England and even South America.

Still, after all this time, no one knows who is responsible for the tiles, or how they’re embedded into city streets without anyone ever seeing.

The tiles appear to be wrapped in tar paper and doused in asphalt crack filler before being placed onto roadways. (One popular theory is that the tiler drops them through a hole in the floorboard of his or her vehicle to avoid being seen.)

Over the next 2-4 weeks, the weight of passing car tires, along with the heat of the sun, gradually fuses the tiles flush to the street. Then it’s just a matter of time before passing traffic wears away the tar paper, revealing the tile and completing the installation.

As for the meaning of the tiles’ message, fans and followers are convinced that “Toynbee” refers to 20th century British philosopher and historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who believed that humans must physically create their own afterlife.

And then there’s Stanley Kubrick’s classic film “2001: A Space Odyssey” about a man who died and was reborn on a mission to Jupiter.

So when you put those concepts together, it’s clear that the Toynbee tiler is trying to tell

About the Author

Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news since 2000. The stories are all true.

Related Articles

Autonomous vehicles are being developed to deliver everything from packages to pizza, but one small detail has proven to be surprisingly difficult to…
August 01, 2019
What’s that scraping sound? Oh, that’s just Christopher Fitzgibbon driving his car to work. The 23-year-old Irish driver recently paid $3,800 to…
July 03, 2019
Canadians have a reputation for being all-around nice people, and here’s some proof: Even their car thieves are considerate. Kevin Freedman of…
June 07, 2019
There’s no better way to spend Mother’s Day than by making your mom proud. Of course, that’s easier for some than others. Take Bailey Roy, 21, and…
May 03, 2019