Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


City Blocks: South Street Survivor

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By Morgan Zalot

Julia Zagar, owner of the Eye's Gallery at Fourth and South Streets, has weathered all of South Street's storms - and all its bouts with success - for the last four decades.

Her gallery, which opened in 1968, dates back to the days when South Streets was the epicenter of the counter-culture in Philadelphia, a haven for artists and eccentrics drawn by rents as low as $100 a month.

Not that it started that way.

In 1968, the street was nearly empty, the victim of plans that never came to pass to build a cross-town expressway the length of South Street, to matched the planned Vine Street expressway to the north.  The project drove away most of the existing merchants and left a scruffy, nearly-empty street in its wake.  Into this void stepped people like Julia and her husband, Isaiah.

"South Street at the time was a kind of desolate area," Julia Zagar recalled. "But it was exciting in that there were a lot of young people from TLA [Theater of Living Arts] around here, and it was very kind of reasonable [in price]. There was nothing here and no real business, but we didn't need much."

Julia Zagar Use This one.jpgShe and her husband, the artist behind the well-known Magic Garden at 1006 South St., had just left the Peace Corps after serving in Peru.  They bought their gallery building for $10,000, gutted the insides, revamped and redecorated it and opened up shop, with the same mix of goods Zagar, 70, sells today.

"When I first came here, you could buy or rent a place[cheaply], so there were a lot of people doing creative work, opening little shops that sold candles or their own furniture that they made or jewelry made out of forks and all kinds of different things," Zagar recalled.  "There wasn't a heavy risk involved because it was very cheap.  You could rent a place for maybe $100 a month."

Soon, South Street got the reputation as a place to visit and that drew more merchants.

"Creative people were doing things and began opening little cafes, some of the first cafes on the block. One was the Crooked Mirror," she said. "Then more restaurants came. People from the suburbs came, and it became kind of a hip area."

Soon after, South Street became the "in" place to be, Zagar said, recounting memories of hordes of drunks celebrating along the street - jumping off buildings into the sea of people below during parties hosted by radio station WMMR.

That was too much for the city, which clamped down, Zagar said, but the wildness and the fights "scared off a lot of people from the suburbs. It became a place for people to come who were not the wealthy or the "in" [crowd], but the middle of the rung...everyone who felt they didn't fit in with the rest of the city, so a lot of gay couples, a lot of mixed-race couples."

Eyes Gallery Art Use this.jpgWith the advent of South Street's "middle-of-the-run" period, as Zagar calls it, came new restaurants, more families and more kids and it drew a younger crowd to the area, whom she said were interested in visiting the street to be hip and to purchase skateboards.

But, like the partiers who came before them, the middle-of-the-rung frequenters of South Street became too much for the area as well.

"Then it became a kind of hip, exclusive area into a general mob scene, and people began closing at night because they just didn't want to have to deal with the ruckus," she said.

More recently, Zagar said hard economic times have forced many shops to close. Other "hip" areas have cropped up in the city and have provided competition for South Street. But, Zagar doubts such areas as East Passyunk Avenue and the Plaza at Schmidts have truly hurt her gallery or other businesses on South Street.

"I think they are very exciting; I love to go to them and see young people now," she said. "I think there are just so many people coming from all over that we get enough people, maybe because of our reputation or just being around as long as we area, we just seem to still get people."

On a recent afternoon, Zagar traipsed about her gallery, pointing out the collections of art and crafts for sale, from Indonesian jewelry to Mexican "Day of the Dead" holiday clay decorations. The pieces for sale decorate every surface on all three floors of the colorful 402 South Street.jpgnook, which is next door to Jim's Steaks. Most of the pieces, Zagar said, are purchased from artists around the world, many of whom the Zagars know personally or have hosted at their home in Philadelphia, which is near Isaiah's Magic Garden.

The gallery draws a local crowd, as well as the tourists who frequent South Street.

"People come by, and a lot of tourists are families," Zagar said. "People want something different.  There are too many sneaker stores."

Currently, Zagar is working to plan the 40th anniversary of the South Street Renaissance, a gathering that will take place in October at the Magic Garden.

Though she just started planning the event, she said 60 people have already responded that they will return to South Street to attend. She expects the number will eventually reach into the hundreds.

"It's a really big thing, it will mostly be people who were here at the time when [South Street] was just starting," she said. "Musicians, visual artists, coming to see the scene.  Forty years ago, it was only two blocks. Now it's river to river."


Morgan Zalot is a Metropolis reporter.




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