Isaiah and Julia Zagar aren’t just the most colorful couple in the South Street art scene. They also played a part in changing the history of Philadelphia, and the principles that guide US city planning.

Text and photography: Jonas Henningsson

Philadelphia’s South Street is slowly waking to a new day. Red, bleary eyes meet me in the street as I wander through the morning mist, navigating my way around the traces of last night, which have been strewn across the sidewalk. The eyes belong to the owner of a bar that stayed open until late last night. I know this, because I was there last night. Again. Until late. South Street rarely sleeps, and as a visitor passing through, it’s hard to avoid getting carried away and joining in. The man has returned to prepare for the next evening, the next night. Now, he’s sweeping up last night slowly, meditatively, as though he were reliving the events of last night in his mind as he worked. I eat my usual breakfast sandwich and study him through the windowpane. Now, he’s sweeping quicker, making more determined sounds. Perhaps he’s concluded that this evening will be better than the last. Whatever the reason, his verve and vigor are back.

South Street is a stretch of dive bars, sex shops, unusual restaurants, cool, contemporary galleries, and stores that are either zany or trendy. A diverse group of people populates this neighborhood. It’s not a place that tries too hard to be presentable; wherever you look, you’re served a dose of rough-and-ready charm. I fell head over heels for this place the first time I came here. This is exactly what a city should be, taste, smell, and act like!

Boisterous and Bohemian
South Street was originally named Cedar Street in William Penn’s scientifically designed grid of streets that subsequently became the city of Philadelphia. His was an overwhelmingly modern approach to city planning. He wanted it all to be neat, and orderly. But while Penn’s blueprints were pretty square, South Street is the very opposite of this. It would be more accurate to describe it as boisterous and bohemian, or even ballsy and bold. These blocks were never meant to conform to any plan. They grew organically, along with all the people who ever walked these streets, I think to myself and take another big bite of my sandwich.

There’s nothing that brings you back to reality like a Philly steak. My breakfast, a cheese steak with provolone and steaming hot coffee, wakes me right back up, and my mind wanders on through history, looking in on present times, and even wondering what this part of the city is going to be like in the future. I slip off of my bar stool and mosey over to the Magic Garden for my second visit in two days. I don’t want to miss a single part of this intricate universe created by the artist Isaiah Zagar. Self-portraits with added arms, a whole world of figurines, and stories told in cacophonies of color… You can find both personal and symbolic meanings in his idiosyncratic art. There’s no such thing as getting too much of Zagar’s art; there’s simply no way you can resist their frenzied expression. Zagar’s world is one you’ll never want to leave. All you want to do is delve way deeper into it until you lose yourself. Ever since the first time I ever heard of this wonderful, manic creation, which involved Isaiah adding his own touch and redesigning an entire residential area, the whole neighborhood, I’ve wanted to meet the artist who made it.

And here he comes walking over to me with his wife Julia, holding each other’s hands. Museum director Emily Smith has informed me that the couple rarely agrees to meetings of this kind. Perhaps they simply find it heartwarming that a Scandinavian crossed the Atlantic on his own to find out more about the magnetic microcosm that they’ve created on this length of street in this region of the US. 

A Magic Garden!

Thanks, Zero Mostel!
“So, it’s 56 years ago, not 55!” In 1963, they became an item, and Julia Zagar has a good brain for numbers. She met Isaiah in New York. They did some bookkeeping and realized that all in all, they had 45 dollars to their names. They used the money to go to a Zero Mostel show–“because we loved Zero Mostel”–and on that particular night, he was on fire. “He did a fantastic impersonation of a Greek vase,” Julia recalls, and Isaiah nods approvingly. Those 45 dollars were very well spent. Right then and there, there was nothing else going on in the city that could have meant more to them.

“We had no more money, nothing in the bank–we had nothing! But we loved Mostel.”

And they got each other as part of the bargain. In those days, they lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, “before anybody started calling it the East village,” they add in unison. Julia and Isaiah were both art students. Perhaps they could have stayed there, but they were both too curious about the world, and about life, to let themselves get bogged down.

“When you start changing things around, opportunities arise, and things happen. If you stay in one place, nothing happens. You have to keep moving,” Julia explains.

So, the couple left for Georgia, and Ossabaw Island. Ossabaw was once home to several large cotton plantations that were owned by four families who had made their fortunes off of slave labor. The woman who owns the island today found herself in some tax difficulties, so she turned the island into a kind of foundation for artists. When they arrived at Ossabaw, the Zagars were 22 and 23 years old, respectively. Many people who needed refuge came here, including a few Scandinavians.

“I remember a little old Norwegian man who had escaped the Nazis with his sons. They crossed the mountains to Sweden on snowshoes, and then made it all the way to London, where he ended up becoming Radio Free Norway.  His name was “Doctor Sommerfeldt,” Isaiah blurts out, smiling with an almost childish sense of glee when he realizes that the most overlooked nooks and crannies of your memory can occasionally be brought out into the light again.

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
We all agree that it was a difficult, strange time back then, but then, our own time, which Isiah refers to as the “time of dictators”, is actually much the same. “But the changes happen imperceptibly, and we’ll soon see another shift–Obama came out of nowhere, too!” Isaiah explains.

After Georgia, Julia and Isaiah went to Peru as Peace Corps volunteers The Peace Corps, which had been founded by president John F. Kennedy only a few years earlier, thought that they had sent the Zagars to the coldest, most inhospitable part of the country when they decided to transport the young artists to Altoplano and Lake Titicaca. But the couple loved it. The Peace Corps had no idea how much Julia and Isaiah love folk art.

“The poorer people are, the more folk art you get. It was like paradise to us,” Julia remembers.

“The people there were illiterate, but they were highly skilled craftsmen–they were artists! They made little dolls and ceramics, and beautiful tapestries.”

“This was where we started out–‘can you change that like this and do this instead?’ We learned more and more about the craft,” Isaiah adds.

One day, the couple thought they had been invited to dinner: “my mother has a fish for you, come over to our house and see!” a little boy told them. As they were getting ready for dinner, they were presented with the gift: a charming little fish knitted from orange yarns.

A Highway Through People’s Living Rooms
“Today, you see these fine objects all over the place, and the families there are doing well. You see them in folk museums all around the world–and in Christmas trees,” Julia laughs.

The Zagars stayed in Peru for three years. The Peace Corps helped them arrange transport for seven big crates of art and folk art so they could bring it all back home. The couple had collected the objects during their meetings with craftsmen and artists. They arrived on South Street in Philadelphia in 1968, and their plans for a gallery and an artistic practice began to gel. However, their route to success would be less than direct.

“These blocks don’t look much like they did back then now. The neighborhood has gone through every phase you could imagine over the years, with lots of ups and downs,” Julia clarifies. But when Julia and Isaiah first arrived, the whole place was slotted for demolition. Family’s homes were to be torn down. The highway would run right through people’s living rooms.

The Zagars and many others moved to South Street for the low rents. The rent they paid for their house was 75 dollars a month. They soon bought the house, because the landlord didn’t want to keep it. Maintaining it was too much trouble, and he wanted to get out debt.

The couple and some of their new friends soon started to protest against the plans to demolish the whole neighborhood.

“We learned how to protest in the Peace Corps–the government taught us how to stand up to these kinds of plans,” Julia laughs.

They got organized, and carried out major protests and demonstrations in an effort to preserve the neighborhood. “But these were peaceful manifestations, art demonstrations,” Isaiah explains. Like planting trees.

“Once, Isaiah rode naked through the neighborhood on a bull, so it wasn’t all that peaceful and well-behaved,” Julia suggests.

“That was much later, Jul, and I was actually wearing swim trunks.”

Don’t Get those Hippies Involved!
A lot of people turned out to want to help prevent this plan from being carried out. The movement for the preservation of South Street received pro bono legal aid from local legal professionals. People realized that the plan was crazy. Why build another mall and another highway when people were thriving here, and the neighborhood was being developed in accordance with the needs of the local population. But other neighborhoods were resisting, too: people who lived all along the planned route of the highway were protesting and making themselves heard. “The plans were resisted on a federal level, on a state level, and on a local level, which made the legal aid invaluable, and there were some pretty big battles to be fought if you think about it,” Julia remembers.

“Bob Sugarman, a lawyer, and the local activist Alice Lipscomb were important for our cause, and we helped each other out. I went to the premiere showing of a documentary about that whole thing, and Alice and Bob sat next to me. I remember thinking to myself that ‘here’s the group that saved South Street, and I’m in the middle!’ When we first met, Alice wanted me to join them, but Bob said, “Don’t get those hippies involved, they’ll be nothing but trouble!” Isaiah laughs.

Making Magic Happen
During the early years of their little arts boutique on South Street, Isaiah’s ideas for the Magic Gardens began to take shape. Isaiah was a bit of a hermit, and he used to run off upstairs to hide when customers entered the store. He wanted to be left in peace in his studio to work. But Julia ran the boutique, which also became something of a logistical hub for the movement for the preservation of South Street and the nearby neighborhoods.

These blocks were what is known as “red line areas,” which means that the banks wouldn’t lend you any money for renovations or other projects there. But that also meant that nobody really cared.  The couple were able to buy their house for $10,000, and they could do whatever they wanted to it. This freedom proved fertile ground for creative thinking and ideas. The timing was perfect for Isaiah.

“It all came together at the right moment: I had the time to learn my craft and how I wanted to work.”

They invested the money they’d saved during their years in the Peace Corps into the building. “We could have gone to New York, or anywhere really, but we chose Philadelphia, because Isaiah was born here, although he grew up in Brooklyn and on Coney Island,” Julia adds. That’s how this delightful couple speaks, I think to myself. One starts a sentence, and the other takes over and finishes the thought.

Mexico: a Declaration of Love
Another customer enters, looks around until she finds what she wants, and then heads off again. Outside, a light drizzle of rain has begun to fall. Conversation moves on to Mexico, and the love we all shared for Mexico City, and for the La Roma district in particular. We end up talking about Cuaron’s masterful epic Roma, which takes place in 1972, a period when Julia and Isaiah lived there from time to time. “The movie tells its story so powerfully that once you’ve seen it, you’ll hear, see, and smell the neighborhood differently–isn’t that incredible?” Isaiah asks rhetorically. We talk about the sounds in the movie, the girl who comes along with her cart full of sweet potatoes, the scents. Mexico is a constant presence in the couple’s lives. Their 36-year-old son is a filmmaker who shot his first film in Oaxaca, which is in the southern part of the country. The same goes for the boutique, of course, which is filled to the brim with colorful folk art, ranging from small toys to amazing handmade masks and more exclusive collectibles. Julia and Isaiah return to Mexico several times a year to find more products for their store in the highlands that are scattered all around the country. Well, these days, they actually often send Emily, who loves the colorful country next door, in their stead.

Much of the Magic Gardens was constructed out of objects from the store. Whenever something broke, Julia would send it over to Isaiah, who incorporated it into his creation. People soon began bringing him stuff, too; everybody has some extra pieces of mosaic or bottles in their home. The project just kept growing, with no end in sight, and the same was true of Isaiah’s creativity.

“He worked at a furious, crazy pace for many years, but now we don’t do much besides collect stuff,” Julia laughs.

Barbacoa, Baby!
“I made those figures with lots of arms because I was working all the time, and I wished I had more arms to do everything with. Now, I could use more legs instead,” Isaiah explains.

We’ve been talking about food all day, and now that I’m packing my stuff up, Isaiah and Julia send me off in a very specific direction, refusing to accept no for an answer: South Philly Barbacoa.

“Their chef is from the best barbacoa family in Toluca. You have to go! Philadelphia has turned into a real food town, it’s incredible. There’s another new place that’s really great: Cadence. It’s in a pretty bad neighborhood, and we had to step over three bodies to get there last time, but the food was oh so worth it!” Julia enthuses.

When I leave the couple, assuring them we’ll soon meet again, perhaps in La Roma!, the rain has grown heavier over South Street. Outside the bar, the wet, newly swept tarmac is glistening, and the neon signs are mirroring themselves boldly in the water. Dusk falls, and the rain intensifies. A new night is beginning on South Street, which is rarely a pretty place, but which does sparkle with a certain confidence in the rain. I think to myself that these blocks are quite handsome, really–it’s as though they had become more self-assured somehow in the dim light of dusk.

The barbacoa joint isn’t far from here, but the rain is persistent, and I know I’ll be soaked through before I get there.

That was much later, Jul, and I was actually wearing swim trunks.”

Visit americantrailsmag.com for a guide to Philadelphia, and to read about museum director Emily Smith’s personal favorites on South Street!