Anna Steiner was asking about “a priestess.”
By that, she meant the organizer of a Facebook event that attracted a small crowd Monday night to an enormous sinkhole at 43rd Street and Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. The cavernous maw so dominates the street that the crowd gathered at 9 p.m. for one purpose: to make ritual offerings to it.
Steiner, 67, held a dark blue flower — a sweet pea — that matched a marble in her hand. She figured sinkhole gifts should be blue, like the water pooling inside the pit. Others brought feathers, garden flowers, candy. Steiner said she wanted to bring good vibes, since the sinkhole should know that it’s loved.
“You just take care of it,” Steiner said, “like it’s family.”
Before the event, a Twitter user posted photos of a West Philly Sinkhole Summer 2019 button and a sign for a sinkhole pizza party, and then later a screenshot with details for the planned ceremony. The user remarked: ”I absolutely love Philly’s ability to go completely buck wild over every single thing that happens.”
The Baltimore Avenue hole started as a small depression, but city workers soon discovered that a sewage spirit had carved out a 20-by-20-foot chasm beneath the pavement. The city says it’s very deep.
“At least 12 feet,” said spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco. “We are not totally sure.”
The sinkhole has disrupted traffic and shut down a portion of SEPTA’s Route 34 trolley. It is the latest example of the city’s crumbling infrastructure. Whether a sinkhole caused by a sewer failure, like this one, or potholes caused by weather, Philadelphians on cars and bikes must steer for their lives to navigate some of the busiest streets.
“When you get completely parallel to the zoo, all four lanes in both directions have craters, shallow but long potholes,” said Brian Rosenwald, an academic who travels several times a month from his Wynnewood home to the University of Pennsylvania along 34th Street. “You always try to bob and weave when you’re there.”
The city has a long history of streets being swallowed by the urban underworld. In 1952, a hole that encompassed much of the block opened up at 43rd and Sansom Streets. Just in May, a sinkhole on Chestnut Street devoured a portion of a SEPTA bus. Recently released city data show street defects reported throughout Philadelphia, but neighborhoods like Mount Airy and Germantown are particularly plagued.
Streets Department numbers suggest street conditions are actually better than last year. The city reported receiving 10,293 complaints about potholes from January to May this year, about 2,100 fewer than the same time last year. The city has repaired almost 34,000 potholes this year, also fewer than last year.
Complaints about potholes on state roads are down as well. The state is responsible for 360 of the city’s 2,575 miles of streets. AAA Mid-Atlantic also reported a more than 9 percent decrease in calls for roadside assistance for flat tires in Philadelphia in a comparison of the first five months of this year and the year before.
The city patches potholes within an average of 2.54 days after receiving a complaint, according to the Streets Department, but pothole victims say the worst holes seem to take much longer to repair.
“I guess the community would like us to move a lot faster than we’re currently moving,” said Richard Montanez, the department’s deputy commissioner of transportation.
The state’s average repair time is six days, PennDot reported.
The city added a paving crew last year, which has improved the overall condition of the streets, but that doesn’t mean much for drivers who have had close calls on compromised roadways. In March, Shannon O’Rourke had a tire on her 2002 Hyundai Sonata twisted completely askew after jamming it in a pothole while turning from Roosevelt Boulevard onto Adams Avenue.
“I hit it wrong, and it took my front right wheel off my axle,” she said. “It was kind of impossible to even figure out a way to put it on a flatbed.”
The repair work cost almost $500, she said, and the long seam in the road still hasn’t been repaired.
Beth McConnell hit a pothole on Columbus Boulevard after heading south from I-95 on April 8.
“Thank goodness that the moment the tire blew out, there was no one to my immediate right,” she said. “I didn’t see it coming at all.”
Her Toyota Yaris also suffered a bent rim and needed to be realigned. Cost: $500. She reported the pothole to Philadelphia’s 311 service, she said, and noticed it took three weeks before the hole was filled.
The city estimates it will take three weeks to repair the Baltimore Avenue sinkhole. The community has surrendered to the hole as a force beyond its control.
After failing to find a priestess, Steiner got the ritual going herself.
“Oh, Sinkhole!” she sang.
“Oh, Sinkhole!” the huddle echoed.
“We love you,” Steiner continued.
“We love you,” they repeated.
“You’re going to improve our cross-intersection,” Steiner declared.
Some people burst out laughing.
Beyond the mighty sinkhole, those gathered Monday night were victims of an even more implacable foe: time.
“The city infrastructure is getting older, and it’s starting to fail a lot on us,” Montanez said.
Philadelphia has 12 pothole repair crews, but repaving is really what’s needed, he said. The potholes often are long, wide cracks in the road surface, formed from ice and water seeping into cracks in pavement, causing expansion and contraction.
“The condition is deteriorating so much that we may repair a spot, but then another issue will arise a couple inches from it,” Montanez said. “Some of these streets, the condition they’re in, the best possible solution is to completely repave the street.”
One place pothole repair won’t work is 15th Street in Center City, Montanez said. It’s a virtual moonscape, with cars navigating divots, humps, and craters. The road is scheduled to be repaved this summer, along with Spruce and Pine Streets.
At the Baltimore Avenue sinkhole, steel fencing, cement barriers, and wood panels stood between the deity and its devotees, so a successful sacrifice took some skill.
“Is this like the Wailing Wall?” Coryn Wolk asked during the ritual.
SEPTA has sacrificed its trolley service to the hole, using shuttle buses between 61st Street and the 40th Street trolley portal. The Streets Department hopes offerings of backfill, concrete, and asphalt eventually will placate the chasm, closing it to allow safe passage once again for humans.
Until then, Wolk, 30, offered it a fish-shape sugar cookie.
“It just seems like a very West Philadelphia event to bring your offerings and talk about the weird intersection of nature and the city,” she observed.