Over the weekend, I made a rather magical discovery while walking along Philadelphia’s South Street. I had just stopped into a CVS for a bottle of water, when suddenly I came across an art lover's dream, known as Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. As I sipped my water, I couldn’t help but stand in awe. During my time here in Philly, I’ve seen a fair share of buildings adorned with mosaics, but this went well beyond anything I had come across before.
The installation is the embodiment of Artist, Isaiah Zagar’s devotion to beautifying the South Street neighborhood—a task he began with his wife Julia, when they moved to the area in the late 1960s. The couple purchased and renovated many of the area’s derelict buildings, adding their color mosaics for all to see. Then, in 1994, construction on the Magic Gardens began to take shape in the vacant lot near Zagar’s studio. From excavating tunnels and grottos to sculpting multi-layered walls, the space envelops 3,000 square feet in all.
Walking through the garden, you can see a countless number of tributes to Zagar’s many influences, from his wife and sons to the dance community of Philadelphia and even the Day of the Dead festival. Described as a “mosaicked visionary art environment, gallery and community arts center that preserves, interprets, and provides access to Isaiah Zagar’s unique mosaic art environment and public murals,” it’s easy to see that this project is a labor of love and the result of an unrivaled dedication to the craft.
In 2002, the lot was sold by its owner in response to rising property values in the area. Unwilling to see the destruction of a beloved neighborhood treasure, the community rushed to the artist’s side and incorporated the project as a nonprofit organization with the intention of preserving and promoting Zagar's work. It now stands as a permanent art institution, open to visitors throughout the year. The site even hosts concerts, performances and mosaic classes hosted by Isaiah, himself.
I have to say that when I took a trip through the gardens this past Saturday, I was truly inspired by every inch of it, all the way down to the tiniest detail. It shows great passion when one can dedicate themselves to an endeavor of this magnitude. It also proves just how powerful art can be a neighborhood or better yet, an entire city. I’m so glad I came across this masterpiece and can only hope it remains for decades to come so others can experience the same joy I did. When a neighborhood makes art, art can make a neighborhood.