It is, without a doubt, a beautiful afternoon in Los Angeles. Warm – it is in the low 80s at noon on this July day – but with a gentle breeze, it is the sort of day you just want, you just need, to be outside. The sky is a deep blue, and I am surrounded by the green of Echo Park, one of the city’s most beautiful public parks. I am here for what is perhaps my favorite annual event that my city has to offer: the Lotus Festival.
Echo Park Lake was originally built in the 1860s as a reservoir. Today, it is just a water detention basin used for recreation, collecting rain water runoff and gradually letting it flow into the more complex runoff system. I remember coming here as a child with my paternal grandmother. We would rent a pedal boat and explore the lake, watching turtles, marveling at the huge lily pads, and enjoying the jet fountains. Those elements are still here today, although the boats are now swans, and the lily pads – actually lotuses – had to be saved and regrown during a refurbishment of the entire lake in the early 2010s.
It is these lotuses that sparked the Lotus Festival, which I am here for today. In 1972, the city of Los Angeles decided to pay homage to its inhabitants of Asian and Pacific Island descent, creating a free festival to coincide with the blooming of the lotuses in the lake. The lotus is sacred in many Asian cultures, so it made sense.
Fifty years later, the Lotus Festival is still one of the premier free events in LA, attracting thousands of mostly locals to Echo Park to celebrate the city’s multiculturalism, beauty, and general good vibes. The event is still hosted by the city, with a rotation of Asian nations each taking a turn to co-host for a year. This year, we celebrate India with food, performances at a tented main stage, and signage detailing some fun facts about the south Asian nation, its people, and Hinduism.
Just because India is hosting doesn’t mean other cultures are left out. Evenings bring dragon boat races and floating lantern launches, booths offer lessons in origami and Japanese moss ball planting, and artists sell Asian crafts (in addition to general artisan products common at all festivals). Food vendors whip up Thai noodles, Indonesian BBQ, and Hawaiian shaved ice. I decide to mainly stick with the Indian theme, though, and enjoy samosas with mint chutney, with a Filipino milk tea for fun.
The city of Los Angeles is more than 10% of Asian descent, with the greater LA area home to millions more, so it is nice to be out celebrating my neighbors. The crowd comes and goes, with most staying an hour or so it seems, always to be replenished by more eager to explore, and it is a crowd truly representative of the diversity of Los Angeles. While Asians are present, the majority are not, and are just here to bask in the sun and in the glow of multiculturalism that this city seems to embrace more than just about any other.
I spend some time in the afternoon at the beer garden. Hosted by the LA County Brewers Guild, it contains a half dozen or so independent breweries’ offerings, with profits split between the nonprofit Guild and the city’s parks department. I opt for a Citra from El Segundo Brewery, a light ale perfect for a warm afternoon in the sun, and marvel at the event unfolding around me.
The Lotus Festival really celebrates what is best about Los Angeles: cultural diversity, great food, small business, and fun in the sun. That it is hosted by the city itself and not left to a third party is a distinction not lost on me. That it is free is a sign of the dedication of the city and its leadership to those core principles that make LA great.
One more lap around the lake, and another look at the lotuses in bloom, and it is time to head home – with a container of biryani for dinner. I am so grateful to live here, to be part of the fabric of a city that is proud of its many heritages. I’ll be back next year!
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