The 300 block of Christian Street has broken out in a rash of blue dots. You'd be forgiven for thinking this is some sort of guerilla street art, but these dots are a project done by Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) and Mural Arts Program interpreting the story of urban stormwater.
The “Street Lagoon,” as environmental artist Stacy Levy called this piece, is meant to illustrate how water moves over impermeable surfaces, like sidewalks and streets, and provoke the curiosity of passersby. The dots - almost looking like raindrops on puddles - flow from the sidewalk, cross Christian Street diagonally, and surround one of the block’s storm drains.
On the heels of the recent Infill Philadelphia: Soak It Up green infrastructure design competition, the Water Department tapped the Mural Arts Program to help create an artwork in Queen Village to continue the conversation about stormwater. The idea was to get residents thinking about where rainwater goes once it falls in the city: It puddles, washes down storm drains, flows down a pipe which empties into the river.
Stacy Levy, who also did the Dendretic Decay Garden at Washington Avenue Green nearby, worked with Queen Villagers to brainstorm artistic interpretations of urban rainwater and hydrology. Initially the team was considering a sidewalk-only project, but neighbors who attended a design workshop wanted to see any artwork link the two very different sides of the street: The Courts housing and the Southwark/Queen Village Community Garden. On June 1 neighbors wielded torches and stencils to help install this blue-dotted design.
We don’t see a lot of street art (as in, literally art on streets) in Philly, but Levy sees the street itself as an exciting place for art installations. “And people really love it because it’s like having this continuous blackboard that you’re not allowed to draw on,” she said.
All of the colors and shapes we usually see on streets have very specific meaning –think yellow lines, white crosswalks - and the Street Lagoon's dot design plays with the “semantics of street language” as Levy says.
The saucer-to-softball sized circles were created using surveyor’s paint and a resinous thermoplastic that is melted onto streets to create markings like crosswalks. This thermoplastic comes in one color of blue because it is used to mark handicapped parking spaces. The paint is expected to last 6 months to a year, and the thermoplastic circles could last for two years.
Beyond a block awash in blue dots, the project also invites people to trace what happens once stormwater washes down street storm drains. Green reflectors were installed at intakes from the 300 block of Christian to the river, tracing the route of the subterannean pipe that conveys stormwater directly to the river.
As part of the project workshop neighbors walked the route of the outfall pipe along Christian Street, over Columbus Boulevard, past Shank’s, and to the river to see the yawning outflow pipe.
"Most people are kind of unaware of their own outfall,” Mural Arts Program project manager Shari Hersh said. “Somehow it’s slightly shocking to realize that your stormwater goes there and in a storm your sewage goes there. Seeing the outfall and the reality of what’s under the ground and coming out into the environment was exciting.”
Ashley Hahn is an independent writer with a background in historic preservation and city planning. She started Eyes on the Street for PlanPhilly in 2011 and was PlanPhilly's managing editor from 2015-2017. Ashley has lived in 12 zip codes that she can think of, including neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and New York. She is a Philadelphian by choice.