Photo by Shannon Frost Greenstein

When They Gentrify All the Magic Away…

Shannon Frost Greenstein

I step through the gate and into a fever dream.

“Oh my God,” I finally manage to utter.

It has taken several seconds to formulate even this paltry attempt at the English language; it will take several more before I am capable of conveying my feelings in any form resembling coherent thought. And the whole time, my eyes are roaming, roaming, roaming, while my brain delights in all this empirical data like a rap artist rolling in $100 bills during an early-2000s music video.

Ultimately, I turn to my husband with mouth agape.

“This is phenomenal,” I say, and the words do not even begin to do the space a single iota of justice.

It is preternaturally sunny, there is a gentle breeze, and Philadelphia’s South Street is quietly bustling this early-Autumn afternoon. We have battled the traffic to drive into Center City — and somehow managed to find parking — so I may see Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens for the very first time.

The brainchild of Philly artist Isaiah Zagar since 1986, the gardens are an immersive, open-air work of art, a multi-level labyrinth through which you can wander while surrounded by craft from all 360 geometrical degrees. It is the experience of stepping into a three-dimensional composition when we are all accustomed to viewing artwork in 2-D, and — as I am currently discovering for myself — it is transcendent.

“How… how long did this take him?

“Forever,” responds my husband, and he is right on the nose.


It would be doing a disservice to Isaiah Zagar to say he is a mosaic artist, in much the same way it is hardly accurate to classify Neil Armstrong as just a naval pilot. Nonetheless, Zagar does fashion mosaics, and they are objectively some of the most unique and inspired pieces of art in a city known internationally for the museum stuffed with Impressionist masters right next door.

Sprawling, breathtaking, larger than life, Isaiah Zagar mosaics cover entire building faces and towering pieces of infrastructure, turning residential real estate and secret alleyways and the concrete of our urban wasteland into priceless, living creations. You can see them all over the city; they are so one-of-a-kind as to represent a once-in-a-generation occurrence for those of us lucky enough to exist in this moment of spacetime. The Magic Gardens are the culmination of a lifetime of work, a public space grown from a single empty lot over four decades of effort.


“Let’s explore,” my husband suggests, and we descend into the bowels of the Magic Gardens.

There are mirrors and tiles, ceramic and metal, carved figurines and rusty bike tires and colors and colors and colors. I drink in text and paint and images and objet d’art. I savor the boring inanimate objects we tend to ignore and tired pieces of debris rescued from the refuse bin, all of them positioned willy-nilly or incorporated into larger collages or sticking haphazardly out of the concrete foundation. I peek around a wall and find myself face-to-face with the sculpture of a Mayan warrior; I descend a flight of stairs topped with inverted wine bottles and spot a cat in bas-relief.  

It is the coolest afternoon, and I will develop a lifelong appreciation for Isaiah Zagar’s work, scouring the city for his many murals, devouring the 2008 documentary created by Ezekiel Zagar about his father, spending money earmarked for the electric bill at the Gardens’ gift shop.

I feel like a real Philadelphian.


All of this is to say, I cried when I heard about the destruction of Zagar’s Skin of the Bride mural. I feel a deep melancholy when I think about the magnitude of this loss. It is the same melancholy I experience when I think about a world with no more Holocaust survivors, when that last living link to something so fundamentally significant disappears, when we lose this primary source detailing a period of history which should never be forgotten and what else might vanish by extension.

The Painted Bride is a studio and a performance space at 2nd and Vine in Old City; Skin of the Bride is the 7,000 square foot Zagar mural that wraps the entire building, one which took the artist nine years to complete and one which has stood for a quarter of a century.

The loss of Skin of the Bride was also for the most banal and sinister and indulgent of reasons — not exactly a surprise for a society which operates thanks to the power of profit — and that is the greatest injustice of all:

Philadelphia is gentrifying, and Skin of the Bride was torn to build a parking garage.


Sure, the developers said they tried to work with the city. The city said they tried to work with the developers. Blueprints were changed; loan-bearing walls on wrinkled blueprints were erased and redrawn. An attempt to classify Skin of the Bride as a historic monument failed. The company proposed a solution to build above the performance space; local real estate heavyweights warned their clients about a loss in resale value if anything were to obscure the city-line view. The community turned out in force as months-long legal battles raged. There were a lot of meetings; I cannot fathom how many emails.

But — at the end of the day — the parking garage won.

In October of 2023, volunteers from the Magic Gardens did their best to conserve a masterpiece. Armed with chisels and hammers and scissor lifts and ladders, hard hats and safety goggles and thick leather gloves, these men and women and artists and board members chipped away at grout that held like superglue in an attempt to salvage individual components, ceramic molds of Zagar’s own hands and feet, miniature sculptures and intricate collages and the tiles that speak to Zagar’s interest in — and immersive training with — Mexican and Central American folk art.  

The goal was to preserve what can be preserved for historical purposes — to save all evidence that “something miraculous once stood here.” But individual chisels set to the soundtrack of a ticking clock can only do so much, and countless design aspects were mutilated or damaged or ended up in pieces on the sidewalk. Skin of the Bride will never be reassembled again; there will never be another.


And what’s even more infuriating, as I googled the history of the Painted Bride and how this erasure was permitted to happen, is that this is not a new precedent. It has happened here before.

In 2016, Zagar’s mosaic Garden of Earthly Delights — adorning the former Society House Playhouse — was razed after the Playhouse was sold to yet another real estate development company. This time, the pay-off for the eradication of invaluable Zagar artwork was 20 high-end condo units, priced up to $1 million apiece.

The final insult to this injurious tale is that Isaiah Zagar is now 85. He suffers from health issues; his body has aged. He is no longer creating art of any kind. These pieces that literally distinguish our city, these pieces that represent an artistic brain we have not seen before and likely won’t see again… they are irreplaceable. And it is the almighty dollar which gets the final say, because the economy still needs to churn in order for the economy to keep churning. If Philadelphia is not gentrifying, then Philadelphia is standing still, and you can ask any Capitalist: standing still does not earn anyone any money. 

So the magic drifts away, and high-end housing takes over the terroir of the city, and vital legacies are forgotten. Zagar’s art was a literal and figurative mirror of our society for decades… and even if we can glimpse through that mirror precisely what is happening to our city, we all need a way better method to deal with the juxtaposition of art and STEM, history and progress, creation and profit, worth and value. Because we are watching the senseless destruction of something precious in real time, and I’m not going to lie… it makes me worried for our collective future.


“Art creates a state of mind and body that is not always visible to us. And when that is destroyed by neglect or malfeasance or just profit motive, it chips away at our humanity and what makes our culture bright.” Isaiah Zagar, 2016

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Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/they) is the author of The Wendigo of Wall Street, a novella forthcoming with Emerge Literary Press. A former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy and a multi-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Shannon’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. Website: 

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