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Interview: Andrea Ambrose of the LA Neighborhood Clean Up Project

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Andrea poses with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a Clean Up


Andrea poses with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a Clean Up
When we first met Andrea Ambrose, she e-mailed us a photo of decapitated chickens she found at a neighborhood clean up asking if we knew anything about it. We looked into it but also took great interest in her organization, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Clean Up Project (LANCUP). On Martin Luther King Jr. Day when then-President-Elect Barack Obama encouraged Americans to serve their country, the little-known volunteer group had 250 people come out to participate to beautify Silver Lake (to see their track record, everything they've done is marked on this Google Map). This weekend the group will focus on cleaning up Echo Park. If you want to come help out, sign up here.

Age and Occupation
I am 26 years old and an attorney, as well as the co-founder of LANCUP (my weekend job). The other co-founder of LANCUP, John Lobato, is also an attorney by day.

Hometown: Los Angeles
Current LA neighborhood: Silver Lake

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How long have you lived in LA, and where? I was born in Los Angeles (Santa Monica to be exact). I grew up in Westwood, and left college, and then came back for law school. I have gradually been moving east since my return to Los Angeles. I have lived in Silver Lake for the past year. I hear Boyle Heights is the new Eagle Rock, so maybe that is up next...

What is LANCUP and how did it all get started?

LANCUP (the Los Angeles Neighborhood Clean Up Project) is a community volunteer organization that brings people together to clean up the streets of Los Angeles one block at a time. We meet up twice a month with a group of volunteers, brooms, trash bags, and gloves. You would be surprised how big of a difference you can make in just a few hours.

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Volunteers Sign Up on MLK Day
LANCUP started when John Lobato and I were driving on Virgil, near Melrose. We could not believe the amount of trash on the streets, so we went to Home Depot, bought some brooms and started cleaning. People who saw us were confused at what we were doing. For the first few cleanups, we only had one other volunteer, my mother. Once we got t-shirts, we gained some legitimacy and people stopped thinking we were crazy (though, I think our next t-shirts are going to be orange and say "we are not convicts").Happily, at our last event, for MLK/National Day of Service, we had about 250 volunteers come out! Turns out, if you buy people Tang's Donuts, they will come in droves. My mom showed up for that one too...

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For a name that refers to a rather large geographic area do you plan to expand from the Silver Lake/Echo Park area? Or any other future plans?

We actually do have a fantastic westside coordinator named Ken Basin, but he has been focusing on media and outreach efforts for now. We also have upcoming clean ups planned in Eagle Rock and K-town, but we are always looking for people to serve as Neighborhood Coordinators, so if you are interested, e-mail us (lacleanup@gmail.com)!

How does preparing and executing a neighborhood volunteer clean up like this work? How much time do you put in?

We amassed an email group of community members and friends who were interested in helping out. We email them to let them know about an event, and then beg them to show up. After, we scope out an area that is especially trash ridden (trashy? ok, now I make bad puns about trash, its sad), and tell everyone to meet around there. We ask people to bring whatever supplies they can, and we have about 10 brooms on hand. People usually have a broom or two around their house, so they usually bring some of their own supplies.

The day of the cleanup, we go buy donuts (essential to volunteer happiness). That is about it-- its pretty simple. We have not gotten the city involved so far (we have bought the brooms, tshirts, and donuts ourselves)-- but if it continues to grow we might start asking the city for supplies. Also, as the attendance has grown, we prepare maps in advance of the areas we are going to cleanup, so as to direct people appropriately. I never thought I would do so much trash talking in my lifetime (Oh! and the bad puns continue).

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Before & After
Neighborhood clean ups can sometimes feel like short-term maintenance work. You eventually end up cleaning a street you've been to before and it becomes a cyclical process over time. Have you identified problems that can be solved by ideas that lead to long-term solutions?

Yes, I tend to agree. With regard to long term solutions, we have started a campaign to get more trash cans installed in our area. When we were cleaning up on Virgil, we walked 5 blocks before running into a trash can. We figure that part of the reason there is so much trash is due to the fact that there are not enough trash cans. As parts of Los Angeles become more walkable, the city needs to compensate and install more trash cans. Our local businesses and city council members seem pretty enthusiastic about the idea-- the biggest (and most obvious) problem is the money. Installing a new trash can costs about $10,000. We are considering throwing a fundraiser with the help of local businesses. Stay tuned.

Should the City of Los Angeles start a Department of Volunteerism?

Yes, and I will volunteer to run it.

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You once found decapitated chickens at a clean up, what other "out there" things have been discovered?

We found a turtle that was run over by a car (I did not know turtles were indigenous to Silver Lake?), condoms (hopefully not used), syringes (again hopefully not used), and an obscene amount of cigarette butts (we are pretty sure these were used).

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What's the most memorable moment so far while at a LANCUP event?

John, the co-founder, was interviewed on Las Noticias Azteca (Spanish News) about our event on National Service Day. When we saw it on TV, they basically compared him to Martin Luther King. As I don't speak Spanish, I couldn't quite follow the comparison, but they did incorporate a clip of the "I have a dream" speech.

What other volunteering opportunities or websites do you recommend people check out?

The Tree People have great volunteer opportunities for tree plantings on the weekends. You can find the schedule on their website. Also, there is a great organization called "Project Chicken Soup," where you prepare meals from scratch for HIV/AIDS patients, and then hand deliver the meals.

What is/are your favorite movie about LA?

L.A. Story. Definitely. The scene where Steve Martin gets in his car to drive next door is the essence of car culture in L.A.

Describe your best LA dining experience...

It may be cliche, but a summer picnic at the Hollywood Bowl. Get some $5 tickets, add a bottle of Trader Joes $3 wine (I recommend "La Boca") and some cups, and there you have it. The perfect Los Angeles night. I am sure that will be my recession obsession this summer.

LA has the best...

Thai food. After traveling through all of Thailand, I think that I can safely conclude that the best Thai food in the world in in Thai Town in Los Angeles. In particular, I would say Jitlada takes the cake, but Red Corner Asia does put up a good fight, and they also deliver.

You haven't really lived in LA until: You have been interviewed by the LAist.

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What is your LA pet peeve?

When people throw trash, especially cigarette butts, out of their moving car. I always honk. Sorry.

What is the "center" of LA to you?

The Griffith Observatory. It is like a homing device from anywhere in the city.

It's 9:30pm on a Thursday. Where are you, and where are you going?

It can vary. I could say that I was out partying like most of the rockstars that you interview on this website, but that would be a down out lie. I am just a nerdy lawyer. Here are the options: (A) sleep (long day at work); (B) still working (even longer day at work); (C) cooking dinner and watching re-runs of Dawson's Creek; or (D) mustering up the energy to go to the Echo to see a concert (to see the aforementioned rockstars perform).

Has Barack Obama called to congratulate you on your scucesses yet?

He has not called, but he did e-mail. I'm assuming it was from his blackberry.