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In the Old City, Ahmedabad.

In February and March we spent a month visiting seven cities across India, from south to north, from west to east. Our time there was completely exceptional: invaluable, surprising, educational, revealing, depressing, infuriating, eye-opening and more. I continue to reflect on those days, and it has taken me until now to begin to digest, and therefore to be able to begin to describe, what we saw and experienced. Herewith, some first thoughts.

First, this: it seems certain that the best opportunity to understand the city in the 21st century and its challenges, obstacles, options and solutions, may be in India. India’s 1.3 billion souls live in the largest democracy on Earth, they own a rapidly expanding and developing economy, they face nearly insurmountable problems, and they are working as hard as they can to build a better urban future. Perhaps once we might have gone to Rome or Paris or Vienna to build a foundation for 20th century urbanism in the west. But now it’s time for the American Academy in Rome to become the American Academy in Delhi, or Chennai. I urge you: go, look, learn – you will be changed forever.

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The seven cities we visited were, in the order in which we saw them, Chennai (once called Madras), Mysore, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Delhi. Together, their populations equal over 70 million. To put that in some kind of perspective – a central operation both during and after this remarkable journey – the largest 72 cities in the U.S. add up to about 70 million.

In the U.S., 82% of us live in metropolitan areas. In India, 32% of the population live in a metropolitan area. India’s urban populations are exploding – most have doubled in size since 2000 – and this explosion gives potent urgency to the need to solve a panoply of problems that we face, and that they face, as the future races toward us all.

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Sarojini Nagar Market, in Delhi.

These cities feature an average density of 30,000 people or more per square mile. To say that slightly differently, each citizen has just over 900 square feet in which to dwell. In U.S. cities, we average about 5,000 people per square mile, or approximately 5,600 square feet per person. Indian cities are really dense.

And loaded with unbearable traffic, too many cars and motos, and endless honking and pushing and shoving. In the context of a measureable poverty of road infrastructure, the cities we visited had – nonetheless – over 20 million cars. Chaos.

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Traffic in Bangalore.

Vehicular traffic is so bad that there is NO solution that involves cars. The car is over in many places in this world, and in India expanding wealth will most definitely not want to hear this, but there is no urban mobility solution that involves cars. In Bangalore they twice tried an even/odd license plate number scheme to control congestion, and there were nearly riots in the streets. In that city, the average speed for traffic is projected to be 6 mph by 2030. We sat in one Bangalore traffic jam for over an hour and moved only the length of a ruler. A short ruler.

Gather all of the traffic engineers and transport experts in a room, tell them that they must solve problems in urban mobility, and let them know that no solution they devise can employ cars. We will see what they come up with, and it seems likely we’ll see it first in a city in India: their current state of urban transportation demands as yet unimagined solutions.

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Traffic in Delhi.

So many other challenges exist. In Bangalore, for instance, the city has seen 525% population growth, a 78% decline in vegetation, and a 79% decline in water bodies in the last few decades. Some Indian urban experts call Bangalore a dead city. And yet,

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Bangalore.

life goes on there.

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Traffic in Bangalore, beneath the Metro.

Another challenge: when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, one of his early pledges involved toilets. In India, 53% of homes have no toilet, and this is causing and has caused giant health problems. While 89% of this problem exists in rural locales, it is significant that many Indians prefer NOT to use toilets.

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Sprawl on the horizon, Delhi.

And then there is sprawl. As I have noted, Indian cities are expanding at breakneck speed, and while the improvisational and makeshift nature of much vernacular Indian urbanism covers some of this expansion, each of the cities we visited, big or small, is struggling with sprawl. Indian planners and architects and developers, using western and mostly U.S. patterns and models for ongoing contemporary development – single separated uses, car domination, and a pronounced lack of walkability – are creating places (well, not really places, but locations) that they will very soon come to regret. In the context of  the rapid urban growth of each city, the weaknesses of this method of dealing with needed newness shows up really fast. We had a mid morning flight one morning (commercial aviation in India is well developed and quite sophisticated) and we were told we had to depart for the airport at 6:30am for a 10:00am flight. We drove for hours through dreadful and very recent developments, in horrific traffic. Try something else, folks.

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Bangalore’s 2031 Master Plan – a bit of a puzzle.

And that something else could find its roots in the contingent and provisional urbanism so characteristic of the oldest parts of Indian cities. While it is true that much of this ad hoc urbanism has all kinds of structural and infrastructural problems, it is also true that the density of this urbanism, its mixture of uses, its walkable intimacy, are potent paradigms for growing a city. Some of the most powerful and moving places we witnessed were these older places. They are so vividly alive, so robust and vital.

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The images: two from Ahmedabad, one from Jaipur, and two from Delhi.

That vitality of Indian cities, more exuberantly than almost anywhere we have been, is situated in the  life of the street. In Indian cities, the street is a conduit for, and the principle stage of daily life. Dodge the motos and walk the streets – it is worth every second. Everywhere are merchants on the ground floor, usually open to the street, and often grouped by type: the jeweler’s street, the baker’s street, the tailor’s street.

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Jaipur.

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Jodhpur.

And above? All kinds of things: apartments, clinics, hotels, more shops – a real mix. These streets filled with commotion are active and vigorous day and night. The theater of these cities has no intermission.

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Chickpet and Avenue Roads, Bangalore.

In the end, the challenges are colossal. But these cities are so full of life and energy. And they seem to be – except maybe for the politicians – mostly free of cynicism. And marked by a substantial good will. There seems to be some hope that these cities can and will, eventually, show the rest of us how to make a 21st century urbanism. We can watch, and we will anticipate, how this struggle unfolds. Onward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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There is an empty site in our downtown. It is called Parcel 5. It has resulted from the slow but steady redevelopment of an area once occupied by an enclosed but long gone shopping mall called Midtown Plaza. New buildings are to the west, and an older and ugly existing building is to the east. To the south is an old slug of a tower building which is being nicely redone. To the north is our Main Street. This part of our city is coming around – it will take a while but there is a pretty strong pulse – the patient will most definitely survive.

Except there is a small problem. Parcel 5. A few years ago the Jazz Festival here decided to stage their closing act, Trombone Shorty, on the empty lot which is Parcel 5. Tens of thousands came to the evening performance, and the magic of a summer evening in the city hit each of them like an opiate. “Wow, what a city, what a great place, how wonderful to be with tens of thousand of people in a city, ooh, the skyline, the stars, the city, wow! Awesome!” Problem.

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Now there is a movement, gaining strength, to leave parcel 5 empty, so that an endless procession of Trombone Shortys (or is that Shorties?) will have a place in our downtown.

Meanwhile our hapless Mayor has decided to back a plan to construct a 3,000 seat theater on Parcel 5, with a tower above it. The chances of this project actually being funded and constructed seem microscopic, and there are a handful of sane and smart alternative proposals for the site in the wings, so to speak, waiting for the big project to collapse.

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Beyond the infeasible character of the theater proposal for Parcel 5, it represents something we really don’t need here. The main advocate, a staunch mayoral supporter, heads up an organization that imports shows from Broadway, and he insists – as he has for years – that we MUST have this facility. No, we don’t must. And certainly we don’t need something we can’t afford, that will be used only sporadically, and that will cater to lots of folks for whom downtown is a rare and spooky destination only to be visited in a car locked safely inside yet another unnecessary parking garage.

So that’s the Parcel 5 dilemma. An empty lot with gravel in a holding pattern for Trombone Shorty, or a gigantic theater that represents the latest legacy mistake in our downtown. What a tasty choice!

I have given a bit of thought to this – mostly to teach myself some Photoshop techniques…. – and I have come up with this:

Midtown parcel 5 San Marco

I actually figured out how to make this look presentable. Shocking….

We’re all focused on the river at the moment – the Governor has offered 50 million reasons to do so – but Parcel 5 is right around the corner. In a city with some pretty terrific and almost forgotten open spaces in our downtown. Like this:

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Washington Square Park, long our city’s centerpiece, and now the site of a murder of crows.

As the Evil Witch said, “What a world, what a world!”

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My brother Doug and I got into a discussion of blocks and alleys and urbanism on this Thanksgiving Day. He writes quite wonderfully about his neighborhood in Portland, Oregon: Alameda. You can find his work here: www.alamedahistory.org.

He said: “‘I am also working on something about alleys here in northeast Portland. The earlier neighborhoods (before 1911) have alleys. South of Prescott, we don’t have any. What changed, I wonder, to move away from alleys? Was this a national movement that coincided with the car? Hmm. Insights?”

Well, of course he is exactly correct. As the incidence of car ownership rose – and it did so really fast – the alley disappeared, developers platted lots back-to-back, and the American city block became just a bit poorer for the change. Here in Rochester we had 4,000 cars in about 1912, and 40,000 cars less than 10 years later. Simultaneously as the 19 teens unfolded, we had 250′ deep blocks, some of which ran/run on for over 1,500′ as the nascent city took shape.. A real urban mess.

Why a mess? Well long thin blocks means less access, of course less walkability and permeability, eventually less security, and certainly a crimp in urban mobility, whatever your means of locomotion.

Interestingly, it is not that hard to find developers saying, in the early years of the century of the car, that automobiles belonged in front of the house, not at the rear, like horses and carriages. Harrumph.

The gold standard for the American city block form, in my view, is the Chicago block (okay, I am a Chicagoan, but still….). 660′ long, and 350′ deep, from the center of the rights-of-way. This gives you 125’ deep lots, a nice alley, and useable streets.

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But similar conventional urban forms can be found in other cities. Even where the urban block form is very large – Salt Lake City comes to mind – there are internal means of movement, which if not alleys, are at least byways that promote some kind of porosity.

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Salt Lake City block.

All of this left me wondering. I know that there are comparative typologies that examine the city block in American cities. One looks like this:

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By Isomorphism3000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23516392

Not sure what they were looking at when they did Chicago (it was probably the Loop, where the block form is anomalous), but this is a pretty good summary. In the end though, the sketches, and this entire conversation, beg a few really simple questions: where did the alley come from anyway, how did it work in various urban morphologies, when did it go away (always in the 1910s?), and what were the consequences?

I would have thought that someone would have written a history of the American city block, and the alley. Not so, that I can find.

Maybe you can suggest sources. Any ideas?

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Once upon a time, North Water was a district that featured garment manufacturers, technology innovators, shoe makers, brewers and distillers, warehousers, and more than a few squatters.

From Main Street, North Water proceeded to Central Avenue and the railroads.

 

Most, though not all, of the buildings on the river side of the street were large masonry loft buildings, housing manufacture and warehousing for retail. In April of 1924, the Lawless Paper Company had a huge fire, and crowds gathered to gawk.

 

Lawless Paper burns, April of 1924. Note the house on the left side of the street, behind the crowds. That’s Marie Lappitano’s.

The small buildings, above, were destined for demolition to make way for an enlarged Chamber of Commerce, thanks to the largesse of George Eastman

And many of the buildings on the east side of the street – opposite the river side – were small, older, residential, and mostly removed, like the Marie Lappitano house at 88 North Water above, built in 1865 and about to vanish, in this view from 1922. The house disappeared by 1926 or so.

Here’s a map from 1962 that shows what Water Street and Front Street were like just moments before they disappeared into the jaws of urban renewal. (Thanks to M. Denker for this plan).

The idea was to replace all of the run-down, old fashioned and dilapidated urban fabric on both sides of the river with this:

Above, the Tishman proposal, and below, the I.M. Pei proposal.

And today:

Photo from Panoramio by Soxrule 19181.

In another city, Chicago, their riverfront revival looks like this:

Our work lies before us. If we can keep images of the rich and historic life that was Water and Front Streets in our imaginations, and if we can be cheered by what’s possible, we can make a better city.

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“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

 

As the city disappears around us, it is easy to feel lost.

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This is what I saw today, above, on one of my very regular routes.

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This is what that place used to look like.

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Lost. I mean literally. Where am I, now that that place I knew is gone? That place was how my memory recalled my latitude and longitude.

I mean figuratively. How can we live in a city that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar, when so many physical places, and so many of our memories and narratives, are being deleted.

But Howard, I am told, these places are derelict, they are falling down, they house bad people doing bad things, and they are ugly.

I see. But it’s not the buildings. It’s us.

Before today, it was this:

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And today it is big, green, and gone.

 

 

 

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Once upon a time, in the now-distant 1890s, and after a long and arduous fund raising campaign notable for the $1,000 donation of the President of Haiti, a sculpture to honor and remember Frederick Douglass was begun. Sidney Wells Edwards was the sculptor. The completed monument was dedicated on June 9th, 1899, five years after Douglass died. 10,000 people attended the ceremony. Teddy Roosevelt, then New York’s Governor, was here.

The monument was located at what is now St. Paul Street and Central Avenue. In 1910 the site, in the upper left portion of this map, looked like this:

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The Frederick Douglass Monument, in front of the train station and not far from Franklin Square.

Just a block from the train station, the site was selected because of its prominence. As Mayor George E. Warner observed at the dedication, “It is fitting that it should stand near a great portal of our city where the thousands who enter it may see that she is willing to acknowledge to the world that her most illustrious citizen was not a white man.”

As a side note one potential site, in the Olmsted designed Plymouth Park (now Lunsford Circle), perhaps the oldest neighborhood in the city, was rejected by the neighbors.

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Plymouth Park, in the Corn Hill neighborhood, 1931.

For years after the dedication the monument was the site of celebrations and gatherings.

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1906.

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1911 – the Grand Army of the Republic convention.

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Celesta Foster of New Orleans about to lay a wreath, 1911. Denis Washington holds the umbrella.

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A celebration at the monument, 1924.

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1924.

After 42 years at St. Paul Street and Central Avenue, and mostly because of the endless railroad traffic nearby, the monument had become “grimy and sooty.” And so a committee was formed, and a decision was made to move the monument to Highland Park. The place in the park for the statue was within a few hundred yards of where Douglass had once lived, on South Avenue. Not exactly the apex of city life, but away from the grime of the trains.

And so today the statue stands, as it has for 75 years, in the park. It was rededicated on September 4th, 1941.

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Not exactly a compelling location, but there it stands.

In reflecting on this story, I have found myself longing for a new home for Mr. Douglass, a place that is again a great portal of our city. Maybe where the Inner Loop used to be, because he once lived at 297 Alexander – don’t bother looking it up, it’s a parking lot – just a few feet away. Or perhaps at the entrance to our new train station, soon to become a fitting, and central, urban threshold.

Any significant city is measured in some way by its monuments and memorials. These comprise the most important chapters in the narrative of any place. I sense that we are not properly serving a critical moment in our urban story with Mr. Douglass off in Highland Park. He seems so forlorn and abandoned there. We all need to see him, and reflect on his life, every day. And we need his wisdom, now more than ever.

“Men do not live by bread alone. So with nations. They are not saved by art, but by honesty, not by the gilded splendors of wealth but by the hidden treasures of manly virtue; not by the multitudinous gratification of the flesh, but by the celestial guidance of the spirt.”

Frederick Douglass, 1857.

“I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity.”

Frederick Douglass, 1869.

 

 

 

 

 

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012 Stitch

The intersection of South Clinton and Bly, in Rochester. The green and tan building on the right of Bly is early – from before 1890. The red building on the left of Bly dates from around 1915.

Recognizable? It should be – it is almost certainly present in your city – perhaps right around the corner. Even now this configuration can be found in every neighborhood in our city. Most often, two two-story buildings to the left and to the right at intersections of busier and less busy city streets. Storefronts on the ground floor, apartments upstairs. Beyond them, houses to the left and right, and down the side streets. A familiar tune, but can you make out the lyrics?

Sometimes the houses adjacent to the storefronts are replaced by other two story mixed-use buildings, if the intersection is of two busy streets. In extreme cases there may be a few three story buildings. There are almost always ground floor storefronts. What is the story this tune is telling us? This.

Electric streetcars began here in 1890. The population of the city was about 135,000, and growing fast. Really fast – about 25% to 35% each decade until 1940, when for the first time the population decreased. So let’s focus on that half-century: 1890 to 1940.

(To add a bit more context, in 1920, when the population of Rochester had reached 296,000, a 35% increase over 1910, there were 45,000 cars in the city, but still less than 15% of the population owned one.)

During those fifty years, mobility for most in this city was on foot, by bicycle, or by streetcar. And the two and three story buildings? They marked the streetcar stops. In mornings or evenings, as you hopped on or off the local streetcar, you could do a bit of shopping, or nibbling, at these places: cafes, bars, shoe shops, cleaners and launderers, bakeries, green grocers, and much more. Then you could walk a block or two and be home.

In the city where I grew up, Chicago, these streetcar stops were tied to the grid, were very regularly spaced at 1/4 miles apart, and exerted enormous force in this same half-century in shaping the city and its neighborhoods.

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Interestingly, the streetcar stops here in Rochester tend to be spaced about 1/4 mile apart also, even though our grid of streets is anything but regular. Even then, we understood that a five minute walk – a 1/4 mile walk – was something almost all of us could manage, even in terrible North Coast weather.

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In 1925, our streetcar map looked like this:

Rochester Streetcar map - 1920s

All the streetcars went downtown because that’s where we all needed to be: for work, to do our major shopping, for our most important entertainment, to participate in our city’s critical institutions. Automobiles wrecked this later, but that’s not a part of this particular melody.

And so in neighborhood after neighborhood, on all the city streets that had them, we can find a similar formal expression borne out of the presence of the streetcar. Even though the streetcar vanished here in 1941 – 75 years ago – it is compellingly clear that the city took its shape and form from streetcars, ideas of walkability, the 1/4 mile walk, and the presence of locally based retail and markets. Here are a few more views.

Webster and Parsells

Webster and Parsells

Webster and Grand

Webster and Grand

Rochester Foresters of America 1922

Webster and Grand, The Rochester Foresters of America, June 1922

Goodman and Garson

Goodman and Garson

Genesee and Sawyer

Genesee and Sawyer

This melody, which most can’t hear anymore, is everywhere around us. And the song is actually more resonant than some may suspect. Listen a bit more.

The development community saw the streetcar and its rails plopped down across the city, and they were happy to follow. We can examine plat map after plat map, and we find that as the streetcar developed, so did the form of our city. At first there may only have been one or two buildings at a streetcar stop. But later, as the car stop became more important or the neighborhood density increased, developers were happy to put up more 2 and 3 story mixed use buildings adjacent to the stops.

By the time of the 1926 plat maps, the streetcar routes were well established, and nearly every streetcar stop was built up. Here’s Clinton and Bly in 1918. The blue checks mark the mixed use buildings at the streetcar stop.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

And though these buildings, and many, many more like them, are either gone now or are becalmed in the idling breezes of our cities, they nonetheless constitute the narrative of how Rochester, or Anytown, got to look and feel the way it does. Even today the truth of this tune is well known – urban development follows the rails.

As with any story in any city, musical or otherwise, somebody always comes up with a revised version – some new take on the old standard tune. Rochester is no different. Here we go.

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This is the intersection of Park and Colby, only a few blocks from us. Yes, it was a streetcar stop. Colby, which runs perpendicular to the plane of this picture, once upon a time dead-ended at the Erie Canal. Here’s a plat of the intersection in 1918.

The two-story masonry building in the photograph is shown here in pink. You can see the streetcar tracks, and at the bottom right you can see the pale blue indicating the Erie Canal.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Now it gets even more interesting. Here is the plat from 1926.

IMG_0002Now the large apartment building shown in the photo is present – it’s the big pink building opposite the little two story pink guy.

But wait. Colby doesn’t dead-end at the canal anymore. Well, the Erie Canal got moved from here in 1918. Where it once was became a fairly large ditch. And what did we put in that ditch? The Rochester Subway. It began operation in 1927, and ran until 1956. Colby Station, shown in this 1926 plat, picked up passengers from both sides of the former Canal, and a pedestrian overpass with stairs gave access down to the platform. Today this exact same place looks like this:

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The Colby Station access, now I490, looking east.

After 1940 here we ripped out the streetcar and moved to the suburbs. Population here peaked in 1950, and then plummeted as quickly as it had risen between 1890 and 1940. New mobility caused a fundamental shift in how and where we lived and shopped and worked, just as it had before. Nonetheless, the force of the streetcar was slow to fade, and as we have seen, many of us live in the streetcar city even today. It’s just that there are no streetcars….

How we move defines our urban places. How we move is  powerful, even seductive music. The city of walking and density and mixed-use and localness is a city whose song has ended here in Rochester. But if we can remember that melody, if we can relearn that song, then we can have that place again.

“The moon descended
and I found with the break of dawn
you and the song had gone
but the melody lingers on”

Irving Berlin, of course

Thanks to Jason and Jane.

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