Not to be missed: Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

We were wandering our way to the Italian Market, claiming to be oldest and largest working outdoor market in the United States, and I was planning on writing about what we saw and did there.  (My own research puts Eastern Market in Detroit as starting at least 40 years earlier.) But along the way we stumbled upon one of the most amazing artistic places I think I have ever seen, and I regret that my pictures do not do it justice.  Imagine over 3000 sq ft of mosaic tile work that spans an entire building and what used to be a vacant lot next door.  Every square inch of space is mosaic with mirrors, found objects, ceramic pieces, and tiles.  The former vacant lot next door has been transformed into a labyrinth of tunnels and stairways, which are so full of things to look at a person could spend all day looking and not be able to see everything.

Although he and his wife have been Philadelphian folk-art fixtures since the late 1960s, Isaiah Zagar, started the work at 1020-1022 South Street in 1994.  From their website:

“The installation pays tribute to Zagar’s many artistic influences, as well as the events and experiences of his life.  Enveloped in visual anecdotes, the mosaiced walls refer to his wife Julia and sons Ezekiel and Jeremiah through playful images and words, but also reference important elements of the wider world — Las Pozas and Day of the Dead, the dance community of Philadelphia, and even the airplanes of the nationwide 9/11 tragedy.”

The story of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens and the South Street Area are equally amazing.  From the 1960s, when it was threatened by a freeway development, artists and community activists rallied together to save the area, and have slowly revitalized the neighborhood.  In true grass roots art-hippie fashion, Isaiah Zagar just started working on the vacant lot where the Magic Gardens stand, mostly self-funded.  In 2005 the absentee (and sometimes referred to as “derelict”) landlord decided to cash in on his investment and informed Zagar that he could come up with $300,000 or remove everything and get off the property.  Again, the community showed significant support, with pro-bono lawyers assisting Zagar in navigating an injunction on demolition of the project, mediating a real estate deal with the owner of the property, and creating a 501(c)(3) enabling fundraising in order to buy the building and lot.  Today, South Street has an active merchant and community association, and is considered a main tourist attraction in Philadelphia.  Zagar, the Philadelphia Magic Gardens, and many other artists, contribute and contributed significantly to this revitalization.  Personally, I think the South Street area is successful because the community values and supports artists.

So I will have to blog about the Italian Market another time.  If you would like to learn more about Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, click here.

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Update:  I know its really hard to read the document at the end, so I have transcribed it, typos and all, here.  This lengthy document reads like a hippie manifesto, and is a good oral history of the space and of the South Street area; it is  framed and hangs in the studio space of the Magic Gardens.

“A Visual Representation of Something That Happened Here
A History of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens and The South Street Renaissance

“The Magic Gardens of Philadelphia grew out of a unique set of circumstances.  In the late 1060s, a group of young artists and entrepreneurs began renting derelict storefronts and apartments above the stores.  The South Street corridor was slated by the Pennsylvania state government and the Philadelphia city administration to be torn down to make way for an expressway to link I-95 and I-76.  It would create a mote between Center City and South Philadelphia.  Among the artists/crafts people to move into the area were Julia and Isaiah Zagar, recently returned from three years of Peace Corps experience in Peru.  They rented 402 South Street and opened a business, The Eye’s Gallery.

“The Eye’s began with the emptying of suitcases filled with the exotic textiles, woodcarvings, and ceramics that the Zagars had collected over their three years in Peru and Bolivia.  The Zagars transformed the Gallery using the detritus of the South Street corridor’s abandoned warehouses, especially a glass warehouse.  Isaiah began a mosaicing marathon which would carry him from the store up the stairs to their apartment, out the door to the adjacent buildings, and finally throughout the neighborhood.

“The Theater of the Living Arts was half a block east of The Eye’s.  Andre Gregory was exciting the public with avant-garde dramatic productions.  To the west of The Eye’s on 5th Street was the newly formed Fight the Cross-town Expressway offices.  Alice Lipscomb said to Isaiah Zaga, “A long haired hippy, yes, you too can help.”  More and more stores opened featuring crafts made on the street and brought by travelers of the world coming home to begin domestic lives on the edge of prosperous neighborhoods all over the country.

“Cities were in disarray, Philadelphia was in chaos.  America was at war with itself and at war in Southeast Asia.  In our little corner on our street we were fighting for our moment here, for our families, our community, our ideals of beautiful life: spiritual, cultural, and healthy living.  We formed a food co-op.  A new director of The Theater of the Living Arts came after Andre Gregory.  Tim Bissinger, an up and coming New York director opened a corollary theater to do experimental theater in an alley near the T.L.A.  After two performances it was closed for city code violations.  Tom saw the vitality of the artists and the craftspeople here.  He realized that the street was a theater that the “new urban pioneers,” as he called us, was “where it was at.”  He bought a building and began doing what we were doing, knocking down and building up, renovating.  He opened a free store.  He rented another space for performance.  He wrote a play about urban change, “Abies Last Stand.”  The South Street Renaissance was an acronym that was becoming a reality.  The Crooked Mirror Coffee Shop, the Gazoo, Yas Restaurant, and a Linchpin [sic].  The Works Craft Gallery (Rick and Ruth Snyderman, the couple that was to educate Philadelphia about the growth of fine American crafts) moved into one of the many abandoned clothing establishments, 319 South Street.  And the fight against the South Street express-way was in full swing.  The Painted Bride Art Center at, 527 South Street, was a venue for painters, dancers, and musicians.  Gerry Givnish, at its helm, was learning how to write grants and was interested in establishing a business/foundation in this amazing cultural outpost.  Before long it had outgrown its small storefront theater and they began the search for larger accommodations.  They found it in an abandoned elevator factory in Old City, Philadelphia, at 230 Vine Street.  Thus began the Old City revitalization.

“Oh!  By the way, the Vietnam War was over and so was the Cross-town expressway.  We had kept our homes and our businesses alive, but prosperity was to quickly dissolve the community.  Real Estate values climbed, investors saw clearly what we were blind too [sic].  The corridor of culture became an economic cow with a legend of creativity, youth and freedom.  Through all the changes, Isaiah and Julia kept their focus.  For Julia’s part, it was about educating Philadelphians to the beauty of Folk Art from everywhere in the world.  Isaiah kept making art in many media, but foremost he covered the walls in the corridor and the immediate neighborhood with mosaic shard murals.

“A decisive moment came in 1991 when he began the embellishment of the Painted Bride Art Center, finishing all five walls (The Skin of the Bride).  By this time, The Works Gallery had moved to Old City and there were not many of the original South Streeters left.  Isaiah continued to mosaic as many buildings and walls as were available to him, and was mostly self-financed.  As of today, he has completed seventy plus mosaic murals in the South Street corridor.  [Ed note: Current literature puts this number to over 100.)

“By 2000, Isaiah and Julia were still on South Street.  The Eye’s Gallery had grown to three floors of folk art at 402 South Street, and Isaiah had created a studio complex between 10th and 11th Streets and between South and Kater Streets.  He was also working on a sculpture garden, but always tentatively, because he didn’t own the adjacent lots that were next to his studio, which would become Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.

“In 2005, the investor/owner of the lots at 1022-1024 South Street, upon which The Magic Gardens stood, decided it was time to cash in.  He put a price of $300,000 on the property and told Isaiah in no uncertain terms to get off the property.  The sculptural fence and all within would have to be demolished at his expense.  Thus began the saga that would unfold into Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens with the continuing pro-bono help from the prestigious law firm Ballard Spahr Andrews and Ingersol, LLP and Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.  Thanks to Jamie Bishoff’s amazing skills and hard work, there was an injunction to stop the owner from bulldozing the property in the middle of the night!  Enter Dick Goldberg crafting a real-estate deal with the irate absentee owner and the team of lawyers who wrote up and saw the articles of nonprofit corporation through the U.S. government hurdles, thus preparing for a permanent entity, a garden studio complex that would be open to the public.

“The Magic Garden complex is the gateway to a moment in Philadelphia’s history, the South Street Renaissance, and the work of a unique artist whose odyssey it was and is to live and work in Philadelphia on South Street.”

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One Response to Not to be missed: Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

  1. bethalina says:

    I am so glad you stumbled upon the mosaics. there are plenty of other large-scale works around town, too, but nothing like it.

    also, i am glad you too noticed that the claim of “oldest and largest” is incorrect.
    oh philly, always trying to get away with “the oldest” claims.

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