I woke up one weekday morning not long ago with visions of Philadelphia swirling in my mind and beckoning me. Amorphous visions, but colorful. I hadn’t done much city exploration in awhile. Hadn’t taken a long and leisurely stroll anywhere in awhile. What’s more, the weather prediction was highly favorable: warm, sunny and breezy. A walk was in order. And so, a few hours later in my suburban Philadelphia home, I closed my eyes, clicked my heels together three times and thought beautiful thoughts about the City Of Brotherly Love. Next thing I knew I was standing at the corner of 2nd and South Streets, part of a funky area not far from the Philadelphia waterfront and some of the city’s oldest residential blocks. Let the adventure begin.
The hike took nearly four hours. I trod, often guided by whimsy, on many blocks within the rectangle formed by 2nd, Bainbridge, Broad and Arch Streets. At the start I didn’t have much of an idea of what my route would be. But this much I knew: I wanted to stretch the ol’ legs, inhale Philadelphia’s quasi-clean air and feel the wind caressing my thinning hair. And this too I knew: I wasn’t in the mood to check out any historical or touristy sites, or anything with the connotation of trendy attached to it, all of which Philadelphia is loaded with. But it wasn’t to be an aimless ramble. No way. When I landed at 2nd and South Streets, I had in mind a theme for the day, inspired by the colorful visions from earlier in the morning. I was going to look for sharp and snazzy outdoor color displays produced by the hands of man, not by nature. It was a modest quest, probably kind of a dumb one. But hey, I’m that kind of guy.
Things got off to a slow start. I looked all around the 2nd and South Streets vicinity and the only colorful things I could find were Fez Restaurant’s facade and a happy, yellow ghoul, dressed in red, outside Las Bugambilias, a Mexican eatery. Still, I figured that the South Street corridor — not as happening a part of town as once it was, but hanging in there fairly well — offered a decent chance to come across more than that. And I was right.
At 3rd and South I said to myself, “Wow, look at that mural.” It was painted on the side of the out-of-business and mourned Mako’s Retired Surfers Bar And Grill. A guy on a surfboard, a girl leaning against a fat-tire car, all done in sweet pastel hues. Lovely. And didst my eyes deceive me? Directly across the street from the former Mako’s was another mural, this one depicting the torso of a fiddle-playing, electric-haired madman inside yellow and black concentric rings. None other than Philadelphia native Larry Fine, one of The Three Stooges. Yeah, man, now we were getting somewhere.
A little while ago I alluded to the fact that I’m no genius. Proof? I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the murals at 3rd and South, because I’d seen them before, though not in recent years. What’s more, I somehow also had forgotten that Philadelphia is the outdoor mural capitol of the world, thanks to Mural Arts Program, a public/private organization born in 1984. Incredibly, over 3,000 MAP- created works grace Philadelphia. No doubt, Mural Arts Program is one of the good guys. It aims to beautify all neighborhoods (from dilapidated to swank), to employ many folks in need of work and encouragement, and to inspire the general population. Big goals, all reached as far as I can tell.
Well, I haven’t been able to determine if MAP was behind the painting on Mako’s side wall. But Larry Fine wouldn’t be overlooking South Street were it not for MAP, nor would two other murals that I later saw on my trek be in existence. Of those, the first I came to is attached to Engine Company 11, a firehouse at 6th and South Streets. It’s a magnificently imposing creation titled Mapping Courage. It honors W.E.B. Du Bois, the Black scholar and leader, and the firehouse itself, which for years was manned only by African Americans. The mural is beautifully designed, shining in browns and ambers that allow its few bright colors to pulsate.
An hour later, on Pine Street near 13th, I stumbled upon the mural known as Spring. Yowza, this one stunned me too. Look at those soft whites and butterscotch shades of the flowering foliage. How totally cool it was that real trees, in bloom, nearly were melting into the painted surface.
You know, somewhere in the middle of my expedition I realized something that never had dawned on me before. Namely, despite the murals that gas things up on certain blocks, most of Philadelphia’s residential streets, beautiful and architecturally rich as many are, sure appear tame when it comes to color. This ain’t exactly a news flash to the oceans of people more observant than I, but it’s true. And it’s largely because of bricks, bricks, bricks, the quintessential and earth-toned building blocks of Philadelphia. Bricks are sturdy, bricks are quaint, bricks have been with us humans for thousands of years. But man, I can understand how someone might decide that a brick-dominated landscape needs to be jazzed up. Someone named Isaiah Zagar, for example.
Soon after my walk began, a few minutes after I metaphorically tipped my hat to the Mako’s and Larry Fine murals, I started to come upon some unusually decorated homes, first on Leithgow Street, just off of South. And then on many other blocks near or on South. I had never seen these exterior wall decorations before, hadn’t known about them. They were something else, kaleidoscopic, multi-colored mosaics made from pieces of tile and glass. The design similarities got me wondering if one person had done all the work. I had a vague knowledge of mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar. I knew that he lived in the area and that he had established something called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. Were these freewheeling creations his? A bit later I learned that the answer was yes, and that he had begun adorning buildings quite a few years ago.
I suppose that Zagar obtained the permissions of homeowners before going wild on their domiciles. Or maybe he didn’t. Whatever. Unembellished bricks (and other stones), goodbye! Colors and designs up the wazoo, hello! Zagar’s mosaics put me in mind of native art from South America and Africa, of children’s art, of what cave paintings from 20,000 years ago might have resembled if their creators had been high on pot. Anthropomorphic faces and figures abound. Psychedelic cellular shapes look determined to escape their confines. Words like dance and celebrate and dream are embedded in the mosaics. Zagar is a positive thinker, a lover of life and, I assume, one hip cat.
Zagar’s greatest creation is Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a multi-level indoor and outdoor mosaic extravaganza, an arts center and a head trip that has become a go-to attraction for tourists and locals. He began work on it in 1994 in what then were abandoned lots, and endured some legal battles years later with the lots’ owners. In the end, creativity and social justice prevailed. PMG, an incorporated non-profit, opened to the public around 10 years ago. It’s at 1020 South Street. I caught a few peeks of PMG, grabbed a brochure from the admission desk and confirmed there that Zagar is the guilty party behind the glorification of the South Street corridor. But I didn’t want to interrupt my hike by entering the Magic Gardens. I’ll get back there some day and will drop my report within this blog. For now, this travelogue will end with photos of some of Zagar’s handiworks. If you click on any of them, or on any other photo in this article, a larger image will open.