There are many things to do in a town like Philadelphia, and a lot of them are based around historical monuments such as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Which is all well and good, but having seen those, I wanted something a little quirkier too. Much like Coral Castle near Miami, I often like to seek out the weirder little attractions, and in this spirit I decided to take us to the Magic Gardens I’d read about online. This is one man’s personal artistic expression made of concrete and junk like bottles and bicycle parts.
The ‘history‘ section of the gardens’ website describes how the artist Isaiah Zagar moved to the South Street neighborhood in the late 1960s with his wife, Julia.
“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, teamed with other artists and activists, transformed the neighborhood into a prosperous artistic haven and successfully led protests against the addition of a new highway that would have eliminated South Street. This period of artistic rebirth was coined the “South Street Renaissance.” After the street was saved, Zagar continued creating mosaic murals, resulting in hundreds of public artworks over the next two decades.
In 1994, Zagar started working on the vacant lots located near his studio at 1020 South Street. He first constructed a massive fence to protect the area then spent years sculpting multi-layer walls out of found objects. In 2002, the Boston-based owner of the lots discovered Zagar’s installation and decided to sell the land, calling for the work to be dismantled. Unwilling to witness the destruction of the now-beloved neighborhood art environment, the community rushed to support the artist. After a two year legal battle, his creation, newly titled Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, became incorporated as a nonprofit organization with the intention of preserving the artwork at the PMG site and throughout the South Street region. Zagar was then able to develop the site even further; excavating tunnels and grottos while adding his signature mosaics to every surface.
In 2008, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens opened to the public”.
Once you’ve bought your tickets you exit the lobby directly into the gardens, which are flanked by a huge, wall-filling mosaic.
There’s a sunken section filled with more mosaics, portraits, phrases and quotations, doll parts…
I found myself switching between peering more closely at details, and stepping back to take in the scale of the place.
There are secret tunnels.
The many mirrored mosaics offer reflective selfie opportunities.
There are a few other walls and vacant lots further down the street from the main site, and many of them feature this catchphrase declaring art to be the very essence of existence.
Zagar has included a few self portraits dotted around the site, usually with four arms (to signify his polymathy?). He’s also usual naked.
It’s a lovely place in which to get lost for an hour or so.