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Zagar’s Magic Garden of South Street

Philadelphia is home to hundreds of house-sized urban murals, thanks to a long-standing civic movement called the Mural Arts Project. Originally praised because it stemmed the creeping blight of graffiti in the 1980s, the Mural Arts Project has turned many once bleak brick walls into colorful representations of hope and nature. And local heroes are also celebrated: Whether it’s Mario Lanza (who was born here) or Frank Sinatra (who wasn’t), Philadelphia has found a wall to cover with his image.

But even in this profusion of colorful walls, one property really stands out. On South Street a few blocks over from Broad Street, you can find walls covered with tons of mirrors, ceramics, statues, bottles, bicycle wheels, and colored grout. The mosaics stretch to cover entire three-story houses between South and Kater Streets, and surround a house-sized lot that’s filled with odd statuary, a tiled floor, and all kinds of junk held together with cement. It’s called the Magic Garden, and it’s the vision of one tireless artist named Isaiah Zagar, who has lived and worked in the neighborhood since the 1960s.


It doesn’t take much effort to appreciate the Magic Garden. It’s huge and impressive in its scope, but if you turn your attention to any given square yard, you’re rewarded with an absorbing level of detail. You could be staring at a statue of a man with three right arms (and wondering what on earth it means), looking at a cartoon painted on a tile, or wondering what a broken piece of Mexican ceramic art used to be. You might be reading a piece of poetry or taking in Zagar’s slogan, repeated often enough in his work to qualify as a mantra: “Art is the center of the real world.” Some of the elements in the garden look like slapped-together outsider art, but the scope and scale of the thing look like the work of a professional. And the steady stream of people who file past daily, snapping pictures through the locked gates or up the enormous walls, often have no idea of what’s behind this spectacle.

But if you happen by at just the right time, you may catch sight of a gray-bearded man with a puckish smile and messy clothes who can explain what it’s all about. And if you look as though you’re really appreciating it, that’s exactly what Isaiah Zagar will do. If he’s not in the middle of a project (which is rare), or if he feels like taking a break, he may step out of his studio and welcome strangers into his house just down the street. He draws people into his cellar, which is covered from floor to ceiling in the same mosaic style, and describes his work. He’ll show his paintings and those of his friends. He’ll describe the ceramic works by other people that he incorporates into his work, which were broken in transit on the way to his wife’s gallery. He may mention his time in the Peace Corps in Peru, and

describe how he moved to South Street on his return, when it was a run-down slum about to be cut off from Philadelphia’s civic center by a bypass. He may describe how the community banded together to stop the plan, but he will usually stop short of saying what most people say about his part in that movement, namely that he’s largely responsible for reviving what was once a run-down rat hole of a street and making it the cool place it is today. 

But not everyone is a fan of Zagar’s work. In early 2004, the owner of the Magic Garden lot, an absentee landlord in Boston who had turned a blind eye while it was just a rat-infested dump, gave Zagar notice to clear the lot for sale. The holding company that held the title to the lot, GS Realty Trust, intended to sell the gap between two buildings for $300,000, a price the newly gentrified South Street market could probably bear. Zagar, his lawyer, and his assistant Allison Weiss mounted a legal and fund-raising campaign to save the garden. Using a collection bucket at the site they raised several thousand dollars. Fundraising events and “Save the Garden” specials at Zagar’s Web site (www.isaiahzagar.com) raised some more. But it wasn’t until Zagar formed a nonprofit organization called Philadelphia’s Magic Garden and secured a promise of $100,000 from an anonymous donor that the Magic Garden was saved from a bulldozer.

But the reprieve is only temporary. Zagar needs to raise another $200,000 before the end of 2006 to get the anonymous donor’s money. Just to be on the safe side, we suggest you get over to the Garden as soon as possible, and while you’re there, drop a few bucks in the collection bucket. Because this is one of the few times in which fans of the weird in Pennsylvania can make a concrete contribution to keep the weird alive. Go ahead. Be a part of the magic.

From our book Weird Pensylvania.

You can read more about all of Pennsylvania’s other uniquely Personalized Properties in Weird Pennsylvania.

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