A Magical Trip to South Street

It’s a stretch of South Street that you once walked blocks to avoid. Now South west of 9th has a Whole Foods, a farm-to-table restaurant (Supper), and a hair salon that charges $50 a cut. It is also home to Philadelphia’s kookiest and most endearing attraction, known as Magic Gardens. As the story goes, artist Isaiah Zagar began tiling dilapidated South Street buildings in the 1960s with porcelain and glass discarded from the city’s shuttered factories and warehouses — and he never stopped. He tackled the vacant lot where the Magic Garden now sits in 1994 and worked on it for 15 years. The community stepped in to save Zagar’s work from demolition about a decade ago, when the lot’s owner wanted to sell it, and the half-block complex is now run by a non-profit. When I visited last year for the first time, it instantly reminded me of Watts Towers in Los Angeles, Simon Rodia’s stunning spires of found objects like porcelain, green glass, and sea shells. Watts also narrowly missed the wrecking ball in the 1950s when the arts community stepped in to save it.

Anyone can gape at the tiled courtyard from the street, but to fully experience Philly’s Magic Gardens, pay $7 and wander through the labrynthine rooms, closets, and basement. Even the bathroom is embedded with folk-art statues, cut mirrors, and tiles. It will take you at least an hour to soak it all up, longer if it’s a nice day and you have time to wander the courtyard and sculpture garden and view the documentary by Zagar’s son that chronicles the family’s life. On some Sundays, you’ll find the 73-year-old artist himself holding court in his studio and happy to answer questions about his folk-art masterpiece.

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