Last summer, a wooden teahouse mysteriously popped up in Griffith Park. It was a serene place on top of Mt. Bell with gorgeous views, where people were invited to write down wishes for L.A. and hang them inside the structure.
The teahouse came and went in less than a month, and the anonymous art collective who built the installation donated it to the city. On Feb. 6, that same collective is creating another ephemeral experience in Los Angeles — this time in a downtown alley.
Downtown L.A. is noisy, and, for all the gentrification taking place, still somewhat funky. I’m standing on South Broadway between 5th and 6th streets. A loud stream of buses and cars are barreling by, and a stream of people — some obviously down on their luck — are walking past a row of cheap jewelers, cell phone shops and clothing stores. In other words: hardly the place you’d expect to have a transcendent experience.
But a woman opens a door into the alleyway between two jewelry stores, and it’s like I’ve entered the wardrobe into Narnia, or Platform Nine and Three Quarters for a train to Hogwarts. In this first small chamber, a young woman brushes glittery paint on origami flowers pinned to the brick wall. It’s bright and calm and quiet — an immediate contrast to the cacophony on Broadway.
Then I enter the main alley, which is open to the sky, and a gentle flurry of flower petals is falling like snow. Along the walls are stations to write down your first memory of L.A. on a piece of paper, a wooden filing cabinet to store them by category, and a pulley where you can clip memories to a rope that hoists them up a flight of narrow metal stairs.
The staircase leads to a small platform, where another woman silently types away on a stenotype machine, which spools a long trail of paper over the balcony and down into the alley below. Petals keep falling and building up, and a man walks around sweeping them to the side with a broom. It’s absurd and contrived and artificial — and utterly serene.
In the middle of downtown Los Angeles, for a brief moment, I’m in a still, quiet wonderland of precipitating flowers, with an invitation to dwell on my memories of the city.
“It was a bit of a portal, right?” says Gasshan Sarkis, who isn’t part of the collective behind Petal Drop LA, but is one of their fans. (One member described him as an "unofficial spokesperson.") “You walk through a door and suddenly you’re no longer on Broadway. It feels in between worlds, kind of. It’s in between buildings, but it’s also ... you’re not quite to the other place. You feel like if you keep walking you’ll get somewhere else, but where you are you right now is just this transitional place. It’s fantastic.”
“There’s an ephemeral quality to the petals that we feel connects, in a way, to this ephemeral event that’s just happening,” says one member of the collective, who all prefer to remain anonymous. “It’s also happening in this very narrow sliver of the city — this sort of narrow alley — and this narrow window of time.”
“When I first arrived in L.A.,” she recalls, “it was a very hard city for me to process and to understand. It felt very overwhelming. I didn’t know how to find the beauty and joy in the city. It took me a long time to do that. But over time I realized that there’s so many surprises in the city, and it’s like one wonder after another. These kinds of experiences are what make Los Angeles amazing to me, and so trying to create some of them is really what has motivated me behind this piece.”
After months of searching, the collective found this privately owned alley through a friend who lives in the neighborhood. “You can actually rent the five feet between two buildings if you have occasion to,” explains another member of the collective. “It’s amazing how quiet a little alley nestled between two buildings can be on Broadway downtown,” he adds. “Doesn’t take much.”
Another fan (who also preferred to remain anonymous) stumbled on the teahouse last summer and was excited to fall under the collective’s new spell. “Look at us,” she says. “Look at where we are right now. And then five steps away, you’re in solitude, and you’re encouraged to empty your mind.”
Petal Drop LA takes place on Feb. 6, in the alleyway located at 530 S. Broadway. Five thousand cups of assorted cherry and wild rose flower petals will fall on anyone who turns up. But it’s only happening for one day, between sunrise and dusk — or whenever they run out of petals. So hurry up, jump in your car, race downtown, and experience a small taste of fleeting tranquility.