August 05, 2021
If you live near the intersection of Sixth and Bainbridge streets or in the surrounding Queen Village neighborhood, July 25 was likely a day you would rather forget.
Not long after midnight, a 130-year-old water main busted. Water rushed out of the ground like a geyser; you would have fared better traveling down Sixth Street in a raft than in a car. Basements flooded, costing some residents thousands of dollars, and the next day there was a gaping sinkhole left in the middle of the mud-caked street.
Over the past six years, more than 17,000 sinkhole reports have been filed with the Streets Department, according to Philadelphia Magazine. That's partly because many of the city's active water mains were installed during the 1800s. So what happened at Sixth and Bainbridge isn't exactly out of the ordinary — unless you're new to Philly like artist Mikolaj, who decided to commemorate the "Great Philly Sinkhole" with a makeshift historical marker on a concrete barrier blocking off the Queen Village intersection.
The marker, which uses a template created by Lily Goodspeed of Plaque To The Future, reads: Shortly after midnight on July 25th, 2021, a historic 130-year-old 30-inch water main under this intersection burst, creating a massive geyser, turning 6th street into a raging river, and making beautiful waterfalls in people's basements. This scenic sinkhole is all that remains, and it has been delighting both residents and tourists ever since.
Mikolaj, who is behind the Instagram account Yester Sketch, said he moved into a place near Eighth and Bainbridge streets from New York City just weeks before the water main busted. On July 25, he was up past 1 a.m. watching his neighborhood flood.
"This was the very first sinkhole that I had experienced here," he told PhillyVoice in an email. "Until now, (I) didn't really even know about Philly's poor track record on street infrastructure.
"… Fortunately, other than a few hours of low water pressure, I was not directly affected by it."
In the days that followed, Mikolaj said he took walks past Sixth and Bainbridge with his Boston terrier and watched as people marveled at the giant hole in the intersection, which crews are still working to repair. And after noticing so many blue historical markers all over the city, he felt as if the sinkhole was deserving of one.
"It seemed like a cool idea to put one up for it," he said. "I searched the internet to find templates for the markers, which is how I first ran into the Plaque2TheFuture site."
Mikolaj's dedication has generated quite the reaction. A photo of it was submitted to the r/Philadelphia subreddit Wednesday and has nearly 800 upvotes. Philly art blog Streets Dept also featured the marker on its Tik Tok page in a video that has received more than 4,800 likes.
The initial credit for "The Great Philly Sinkhole" went to Goodspeed, who as Plaque To The Future has traversed the city since 2016 leaving makeshift historical markers commemorating moments that might otherwise be forgotten (see this plaque from December outside of the now-defunct Boot & Saddle, for example). Goodspeed said that most of her work comes from submissions, so she was happy to provide the template for Mikolaj's "incredible" idea. Her website invites others to "create their own piece of history," and she hopes to collaborate with more neighborhood groups, historians and nonprofits in the future.
"I see the project as an opportunity for Philadelphians to share their own stories," she said in an email. "It only works when people submit their experiences to my website or want to create their own, especially because these are temporary plaques and ephemeral compared to any official markers. Philadelphia is a diverse, constantly changing place, and I think it's exciting to be able to provide a platform where unique perspectives about what constitutes history can be told."
As for the status of the sinkhole repairs, Brian Rademaekers with the Philadelphia Water Department said the damaged main had not been removed from the ground as of Friday. Additionally, Rademaekers said that contracted crews were working on a portion of the sewer system near the intersection that has collapsed and smaller water mains in the area of the break that require maintenance.
"Typically, a repair of this magnitude involving multiple layers of infrastructure will last several months at minimum," Rademaekers said Friday. "Once all repairs have been completed the roadway restoration will follow."
That estimate leaves quite a bit of time for "The Great Philly Sinkhole" to be dethroned before Sixth and Bainbridge is back to normal.