The Los Angeles River that runs through Andrea Iniguez's Boyle Heights neighborhood looks exactly as it does in the movies, with just a trickle of water, graffiti spray-painted on the concrete walls and no wildlife.
But Saturday, the 15-year-old experienced a part of the river that conservationists have been fighting for years to bring back: a majestic channel with ducklings wading in the water, greenery sprouting from the center and water rushing over rocks.
"I saw this river and I didn't even know it was the L.A. River," said Andrea, a freshman at Boyle Heights High School. "It actually has water and animals. I was surprised."
FOR THE RECORD:
L.A. River cleanup: An article in the April 6 California section about a cleanup project along the Los Angeles River said that volunteer Andrea Iniguez attends Boyle Heights High School. She attends Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights. —
On Saturday, Andrea was among hundreds of volunteers who turned out to clean up the river as part of an ongoing effort by city officials and the community to restore the often neglected and overlooked waterway. The group, which included JPMorgan Chase employees and students from local high schools, pulled weeds, planted trees, painted murals and removed graffiti along the river near Elysian Park.
Some who joined the cleanup effort were unaware that a 51-mile-long river runs beyond Los Angeles' city boundaries.
Growing up in L.A., Robert Lagace thought the river was actually a drain for sewage runoff. He does remember seeing it on the big screen.
The river was "a great set or backdrop for some cool movies like 'Terminator' and 'Italian Job,'" said Lagace, a Chase marketing manager. "But very rarely did I think of the L.A. River like you would any other major river in any other major city."
Mayor Eric Garcetti has been pushing for the federal government to approve a $1-billion project to revitalize the Los Angeles River. The plan calls for reintroducing layers of natural habitat over existing concrete that lines the riverbed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a concrete bank after a destructive flood in 1938.
In recent years, the river has become an increasingly popular destination. Last summer, the city opened a 2.5-mile stretch to kayakers. Bicycle paths, hiking trails and pocket parks dot its course.
On this sunny day, bicyclists stopped at a small pop-up cafe to drink fresh-squeezed orange juice and watch the volunteers spruce up a trail.
The $130,000 volunteer project is sponsored by the One America tour, a yearlong nationwide volunteer campaign created by JPMorgan Chase and Points of Light, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, to promote volunteerism. The tour kicked off in Columbus, Ohio, in July and tackled problems in New York, Chicago, Miami and Houston. Each city is allowed to pick its own cause.
"We know that the L.A. River is a kind of unsung hero in the area — a place with tremendous potential — and sometimes gets overlooked," said Delores Morton, programs president of Points of Light.
Andrea, the Boyle Heights teen, asked a friend, "Why doesn't the river by our home look like this?"
The two girls discussed how a restored river could change the community by drawing more people outdoors and bringing pride to the area, which could deter tagging.
"It could really make the area better," Andrea said.