Lotus flowers, festival make their return to Echo Park Lake

The blossoms are back for the Lotus Festival in Echo Park

The blossoms are back.

That was the theme Saturday at the 34th Lotus Festival held at Echo Park Lake under a sunny sky. Thousands wandered the park with plates of noodles and rice, stopping to watch dance troupes and martial arts demonstrations and pose for photos in front of a pond resplendent in pink-and-white petals.

But for a while, some wondered if the lotus plants and the eponymous festival would ever return.

For years the man-made reservoir had been home to a sickly bed of dwindling flowers. Pollution, sediment build-up, bacteria, predators — the list of possible problems was long, but the solution was unclear.

Then the park closed for a two-year, $45-million storm water improvement project and the lake was drained. The last Lotus Festival was in 2011.

Although the park reopened last year, many had no idea its lotus bed had been restored. Saturday's celebration seemed to mark its official homecoming, and patrons learned the robust comeback was thanks to a horticulturist who illicitly snipped a strand of tubers from the ailing pond and bred them on his own.

"We call today the rebirth of the Lotus Festival," said Leo Pandac, chairman of the festival planning committee for nearly two decades. Pandac recalled when the event flourished from a neighborhood gathering to, at its peak, 250,000 attendees. The lotus plant was always the star.

"It represents purity — something that grows in the mud, but produces beauty," Pandac said.

Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, whose district includes Echo Park, said he hoped the event helped restore faith to the constituents he encountered who didn't believe the park or its lotus bed would beckon patrons any time soon. Calling the lotus the "meme" of the neighborhood, O'Farrell said the celebration "adds to the vibrancy and quality of life in Los Angeles."

Beginning in 1972 as the "Day of the Lotus," the two-day festival takes place in July when the showy flowers have unfurled to reveal their golden centers. The celebration was created to promote awareness of the contributions of local Asian Americans, and honors a specific ethnicity each year.

"This is really exciting for me," said Anthony Magtalas, a recent UC Riverside graduate who arrived at the event with two friends and had no idea the theme this year revolved around his own ethnic background, Filipino. "I'm really glad that there's a lot of non-Filipinos who came and can be introduced to our culture."

As mist from the lake's fountain gently sprayed on them, a crowd watched a Filipino group dance onstage in red and black tapis skirts. Miss Philippines USA candidates wandered about in brilliant white sashes. The Philippines national anthem was sung immediately following the "Star-Spangled Banner."

Nearby, vendors hawked jewelry, bags, T-shirts, figurines and dresses. A diverse row of food stalls catered to growing lines of patrons hungry for lumpia, pupusas, tamales, pad thai, boba and, of course, funnel cake. The booths will be back Sunday from noon to 8 p.m.

Over at the lotus bed, people took photos and marveled at the lush flowers.

"They're so beautiful, it's sort of surreal," said Jardine Hammond, who lived in Echo Park for nearly four years before recently moving to Silver Lake.

The wardrobe stylist makes her way to the park often, now that the lotus plants have made their return. "I come here way more now than I did when I lived here," Hammond said. "They've done such a beautiful job restoring it."


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