The second Petal Drop LA was a low-key public art installation featuring a downtown Los Angeles industrial building and street, festooned with purple flowers. It was a surreal collision of the natural and the industrial, art and commerce. And it was exactly what inner-city Angelenos needed on a sleepy Sunday morning.
Numerous plans have been made to beautify the polarizing industrial landscape of Los Angeles. We’re going to carve out the concrete-plastered LA river into recreation space (at some point)! Smorgasburg LA is coming in June, a permanent outdoor weekly market! There’s a, uh, ‘temporary pop-up park’ somewhere in Hollywood, with umbrellas mimicking real trees!
Don’t get me wrong–all of these sound like well-meaning, much-needed facelifts in a city that feels increasingly difficult to enjoy. But at present, they also sound like drops in the bucket, little cosmetic fixers that fall just short of injecting true life and beauty into the urban sprawl of LA. While these plans struggle to excite me, Petal Drop LA was an unexpectedly immersive, beautiful experience that encapsulated what all these attempts are groping for: a living Los Angeles. A city for people rather than cars. A place where beauty isn’t segregated into city blocks for admission’s price, but commonplace. A community with all the liquid smog scrubbed out, replaced with living blood and flowers in its veins.
On May 29th, the group behind Petal Drop LA transformed an industrial block on Main & Lamar into something quietly different. The street corner is a typical downtown LA sight: traffic signs more numerous than ads, scattered e-waste, powerlines crisscrossing the sky, just as lane dividers graph the streets below. But on this morning, closer inspection revealed purple flowers carefully packed into sidewalk cracks, plumbing, everywhere. You would’ve seen littered cups, cracked computer monitors, and the carcasses of defunct automobiles similarly bursting with loose purple leaves. The street signs and bus stop benches too, filled in with little bloom fields.
When I arrived, there was a gentle trickle of visitors turning out for the event. Precious little info was available. The location was kept undisclosed until dawn. Even then, you had to either call their hotline or check the twitter. The hush-hush wasn’t for pretension, but to foster a certain ‘business as usual’ attitude. This wasn’t a grandiose LA makeover, a dramatic reimagining. The organizers wanted to depict LA as it was, but with just an ounce of the whimsical injected. No gasping crowds–rather, passersby and their curiosity. Most Los Angeles art functions have ‘scene’ written all over them, with Instagrammers swarming like LED flies. But at Petal Drop LA, I saw mostly couples, an acceptable amount of selfie sticks, and a refreshing number of children. Almost everyone had small flowers in their hair, pockets,and bags.
On the way down to the main installation area, I was offered flowers twice. The first time was from a hard-hatted girl on the corner, dressed exactly like a factory worker, except for the lavender motifs on her uniform. There were several such installation ’employees’ sauntering around, directing visitors. The second was from an old Asian woman, happily handing out blossoms from an ice cream cart.
At the main installation was a chain divider and a smiling factory woman at an office desk, serenely stamping miscellaneous papers. Behind her, the industrial apparatuses bore tons upon tons of purple flowers. The jacaranda blossoms piled in enormous mounds between the crumbling grey walls. Above, another worker manned a loudspeaker. Intermittent messages were broadcast in a grocery-store PA voice: “Los Angeles is my mother.” “The city is still beautiful.”
What was most impressive was that there was no rejection of LA’s industrial or commercial appearance. They didn’t pick up the litter, paint the trucks, or costume the organizers. Then it wouldn’t be LA, right? Instead, they simply infused them all, with a small spray of flowers. Petal Drop isn’t here to destroy ugliness, but to marry it with the beautiful. You don’t transform a city by erasing its identity, even the unsavory parts. You accept and beautify it as a whole.
The anonymous group had done this once before in February. In the alley between the Arcade and Cameo theaters on Broadway, they sprinkled flowers for hours. They were also behind the Griffith Park Teahouse in June of last year. When I asked one of the tight-lipped but smiling employees if there will be more Petal Drops in the future, she shrugged. “We’ll see!” Though the group has been charmingly mum about its activities, you can follow them on twitter @petaldropLA. Or, you know, just happen upon their work in the street. That’s probably preferable.