Photography: Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens


A friend of mine is a grade school teacher. She had last week off for the mid-Winter break, and she didn’t have much planned. She texted me early last week and suggested a trip to Philadelphia for like a day or two. I hadn’t left the New York area since November 2019 — when I was in Montreal to cover that year’s M for Montreal — and I had been itching to go somewhere. 

A few things helped to make the trip possible:

  • COVID infection numbers have been on a rapid decline over the past month. If I were asked about hitting the road in January, I would have declined. 
  • We were only planning to be out of town for about a day or two. (I had to be back in New York because my mom and I had tickets to see Hasan Minhaj at Radio City Music Hall.)
  • I know Center City Philly fairly well. I had been to Philly a handful of times over the past decade — mainly for business trips tied into a day job. But I was also in Philly once for The Roots Picnic

Our first full day in town was very busy: While eating breakfast, my friend asked me what I wanted to do. The first thing I said was that I wanted to see was John Coltrane‘s house in North Philly.  We then googled “Instagramamble Philly,” which gave us a lot of great ideas for photos — including the Fountain Street Steps in Manayunk, a small town-like neighborhood in Northwest Philly and Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens on South Street.

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is an immersive mixed media art environment created by Isaiah Zagar that’s completely covered with mosaics that stretches out between two indoor galleries and a bi-level outdoor sculpture garden. Zagar used tiles, bottles, bicycle wheels, mirrors and international folk art — primarily from Central America — to chronicle his life and influences.

Zagar and his wife Julia have devoted to beautifying Philly’s South Street neighborhood since the 1960s, when the Zagars moved to the area. The couple helped spur the revitalization of the area by renovating derelict buildings and adding colorful mosaics on both private and public walls.

The Zagars, along with a collection of passionate artists and activities transformed the neighborhood into an artistic haven and successfully led protests against the construction of a highway that would have demolished South Street and the surrounding neighborhood. After the street was saved, Zagar continued creating mosaic murals, resulting in hundreds of public artworks over the next five decades.

Back in 1991, Zagar started working on the vacant lots located near his studio at 1020 South Street. He first mosaicked the buildings on either side of the property and then spent years sculpting multi-layer walls out of found objects. In 2014, the Boston-based owner of the lots discovered Zagar’s installation on the property and decided to sell the land, while calling for the work to be dismantled.

The neighborhood unwilling to see the space dismantled, rallied behind the artist and his creation, the then-newly titled Philadelphia Magic Gardens. The space quickly became incorporated as a nonprofit organization with the intention of preserving the artwork at 1020 South Street and throughout the neighborhood. Zagar as then able to further develop the site, excavating tunnels and grottos.

In 2008, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens opened to the public. Visitors now have the opportunity to participate in tours, act activities, hangs-on interpretive experiences, workshops, concerts, exhibitions and more.

It’s a gorgeous, mind-bending space with layers upon layers upon layers. We wound up spending a good 90 minutes there without feeling like we saw everything.