Monday, October 11, 2010

Somewhere Else



The downtown LA I used to know has moved. I don’t know how far it is from City Hall, Times Mirror, or Bunker Hill these days; I suspect you can find the cardboard boxes framing the gentrification. I have no urge to seek it out.

For years, I passed the street people on my way from the car to The Times, and from The Times to my car. In the evening, I’d see them on their way to the shooting gallery; in the morning, they panhandled for enough to get the blood flowing again.

Most of these were feral people, like the dogs that followed their trail around the city. The dogs and the people would take care of intimate business against building walls or out on the sidewalk. The city always ran hot and cold on public restrooms. Some politicians believed portable toilets were a basic requirement for human dignity; others believed they’d encourage prostitution. I rather guess both were right.

Aside from the daily trips to the garage, I used to do a lot of walking in LA. I was never afraid, but I never investigated Skid Row or Cardboard City after dark. I found Needle Park the most depressing, partly because they would shoot up in public, and partly because it was across the street from a day care center.

Some of us tried to help the street people, or more accurately, would choose one in particular and make him or her a project. I never did this. A woman I worked with, Linda, did. She brought her project morning meals and gave her clothes. But then Linda got unreasonably angry when she saw a stranger wearing her leather jacket, so that was that.

Kevin over at East of West LA knows where these people are today. They’re often his subject, and he does it better than anyone else. I just wonder what drives him.

45 comments:

  1. We still see this shit daily. And the gals who drink coffee at Dennys as they await a visit to see their fellows. All romantic notions about street people were wiped away long ago for me.

    and the dogs on the eastside of downtown? guard dogs that got loose and form packs and tear the guts out of the feral cat population.

    good morning sunshine

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  2. When I was 22 I landed at the Greyhound station, at night. They roll up the sidewalks in downtown at night now but in 1972 the area around the bus station was very lively and more than a little scary.

    I've spent a fair bit of time downtown over the years but I've managed to miss the needle park, cardboard city etc. I'm still fascinated with downtown LA.

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  3. I used to work in downtown LA myself. It was always very interesting to walk around. Now I try to avoid it...

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  4. It's a daytime place for me, and even that not so often. I suppose that's why the gentrification. The moneymakers want to hide the street people who are sometimes so hard to look at in Kevin's incredible photos.

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  5. What drives us to become immune? When the wrong person 'wears' our leather jacket? I wondered who was in the pack here...
    Sadly, I have to ask what the geographical boundaries are to downtown LA. I'm looking at a map...

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  6. Karin,

    I was in high school -- early 60s -- going to the old library building gutted by a burning sometime in the 80s.

    We'd go there on projects. The best H.P. Lovecraft collection in town at the time.

    Bums -- not known as 'street people' then -- slept at the library tables.

    I still liked walking the empty stairwells a flight or two.

    Some deep memories of 'Downtown' -- Red Helen preaching against the commies. Autumn weather. City.

    Trulyfool

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  7. My 14-year old looks crestfallen every time she sees someone pushing all their belongings in a shopping cart. It's easier in life when you are not so easily moved by suffering.

    Nice piece of writing, as usual.

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  8. I'm trying to think of an urban area without homeless, that I've been to. Maybe Copenhagen? But then, I didn't go everywhere.

    A project I'm newly involved with in Austin is "Art from the Streets." It's genius, actually succeeds in getting people into their own places.

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  9. No matter where one lives there will always be a "homeless" population. We see them here all the time. I might add that most of them want to live this way. I have a cousin in California somewhere who chooses to live this way even though his family would welcome him home and help him out. I don't understand it.

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  10. the homeless go missing in NYC too.We don't see them, they don't see us. Fair trade off I guess, notwithstanding life expectancy.

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  11. Cardboard city is not Disney Land ... for sure.

    Homeless and hopeless are synonymous.

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  12. Has it moved to Memorial Park?
    Pasadena Central Library?
    South Lake?

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  13. PA, I agree. No romance when up close and personal.

    Wayne, I believe at one time, maybe up until the 90's, that was one of the most dangerous parts of downtown. Which makes sense. The regulars would prey on whatever innocents (or innocence) the Greyhound trucked in.

    Pat and Truly, did you ever see the guy who would preach from 1st and Spring with a Dixie Cup on his head?

    Petrea, gentrification really took off during the housing bubble. Prior to that, aside from the street people, most of the residents were artists who found affordable loft space. I'm sure PA knew them.

    Brenda, now that's a good question. But the area I knew you can find on the map between 1st street and 9th, and Broadway to Central.

    Jean, I'm glad to hear that. Because Christine, in my limited experience, I don't think homeless is a choice, not for most. And some of the addicts and homeless were born to the addicted and homeless.

    Kenny Mac, I always felt invisible when I walked around. And I think I was.

    Dez, yes, but what exists and still exists in Pasadena pales by comparison.

    Margaret, you can't explain those things, can you?

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  14. Dez, I think I meant to add "in scope."

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  15. I noticed it moved too when I was there in January, just have New Yrs. My 1st thot was: has it been that long since I've been around these parts??!

    Unfortunately, one thing hasn't moved out yet: their local govt.

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  16. The WV when I logged on was "winesuck." Honestly.

    I spent many years working downtown and three of them in an office at 5th and Wall, right in the center of Skid Row. I dealt with the homeless on several levels. AH is right about the debate over porta-potties. Frankly, having them was better than not having them, although prostitution did occur in them. I discovered the worst indignity one day when I drove to work and there was yellow crime scene tape around a porta-pottie. I inquired and learned that some guy was using it for it's intended purpose and was shot in a drive-by. Imagine, dying from a gunshot wound while using a portable toilet in skid row.

    I've been to Copenhagen, Jean, and there are homeless there too.

    The problem with the homeless is one no one wants to seriously deal with it. The business community wants them removed from downtown, for good reason. The homeless service providers, such as the missions, raise money by exploiting the plight of the homeless. The fact is there are empty beds every night of the year in the homeless shelters downtown. That's because they have rules and many of the homeless refuse to follow them.

    So, the problem is placed on the backs of the police who have limited tools. Being homeless is not a crime. Hard line laws like a prohibition on sleeping on the sidewalk are criticized by the homeless advocates. Yet, business owners don't want to have their customers walk through human feces and urine to enter a business. Some people want the homeless packed up and moved to another part of town, but that's called kidnapping. So, the police are stuck with the problem with no solutions.

    There are three types of homeless people. There are those that are homeless due to economic circumstances. These are the ones that seek help and will take advantage of services. The other two types are homeless by choice, or as the politically correct say, "shelter resistant. They are the mentally ill, and the drug/alcohol addicted. The mentally ill should be in mental health treatment centers, but the programs for them died years ago due to budget cuts. The drug and alcohol addicted would rather smoke the pipe or drink a short dog, or both, than go into a shelter for a hot meal and warm bed if it means not consuming their drug of choice.

    Many years ago the Police used to pick up the drunken bums in a "B" wagon and take them to jail overnight. They were fed, kept warm in the winter, and released the next day. After several arrests the drunk court would send them off to the drunk farm where they were fattened up and sobered up. But, because they were drunks, they slept on the floor (to avoid falling out of bed and splitting their heads open). A reformed alcoholic named Robert Sundance sued and the courts ruled that being drunk was an illness and not a crime, and making drunks sleep on the floor was inhumane. So, the "B" wagon stopped picking up drunks, and instead of the indignity of sleeping on the floor, many of them suffered the indignity of dying in a gutter. To some, that's progress.

    The person who solves the homeless problem in this country deserves the Nobel Prize.

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  17. "In addition to addiction, how do you think one gets to that point?" Years ago, I asked a city-smart friend. He answered quickly and confidently: "Loss of will." Got me to thinking, how many bad breaks can any one of us recover from, resurrect ourselves? I don't know, and if substances are involved, all bets are off for sure.

    Saw the (excellent) movie "The Social Network" today. In it, there's a brief story about the founder of Victoria Secret who sold out too soon to a bigger investor, netting "only" 4 million (I think that's the info). When he found out how big Victoria S. was going to be, he jumped off the Golden Gate bridge. Loss of will. 4 million not enough. If there's ANY truth to that . . . I guess we all have a breaking point.

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  18. dbdubya, I'll read anything you write. Yesterday you made me laugh on Laurie's blog. Today you made me think.

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  19. I have a lot to say but i need to think before I do. That's a first. Write it down.
    Later gator,
    Virg

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  20. CO, I know. I'm going to have dinner around 5th and Spring tomorrow. Who would have thought?

    DB, I was hoping you'd weigh in. And I agree about the Nobel Prize. I would add a 4th homeless category -- those who are born homelss, and who know no other way to live.

    And maybe Banjo has a fifth, or maybe that is all-inclusive.

    What, Virg?

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  21. It's probably sad, but I've walked less than twenty footsteps downtown...

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  22. Hi Karin - thank you for bringing attention to my photos, I've had twice as many visitors/views/hits than usual. I don't what if anything drives me but I do like to point out that many of the people I photograph are closer to being eccentric ("The Good Luck Lady") or mentally ill ("Man With Infected Nose") than flat out alcohol or drug addicts, who are usually predictable from a photographic standpoint and a pain in the ass besides. The mentally ill seem to know they're simply the lepers of contemporary life and that's that.

    Thanks again.

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  23. For a couple of years I volunteered at 9th street school on weekends. And some of the kids were immigrants, so they were ok so long as their parents found work. But some were the kids of addicts and prostitutes. And we'd put on a Halloween party, and they'd come dressed as Dracula or whatever. And, for some of them, what monster could compare to what they faced at home.

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  24. I don't know the answers to such sad and troubling things.

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  25. Amy, there's still a lot of beautiful old architecture downtown. I'm an architecture nut and downtown has treasures. I'll be honest, though, I don't like to go alone.

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  26. I've never been to downtown much-of-anywhere at night. I hate big cities, and I hate "the country", out there where there are few houses and little civilization. I don't understand why Linda would get mad at her "project" trading away a jacket she'd bought, since barter must be how these people live. If you give someone a gift, be prepared for them to misuse or abuse it.

    Some homelessness is bad luck, but much is self inflicted. Since it became illegal to scoop up the mentally ill and keep them in institutions indefinitely, the problem seems to have greatly worsened. I don't think there is an answer, sadly.

    Great thought provoking post.

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  27. I work in clean little section of civility in the heart of skid row. The marginal people are certainly present as panhandlers and the like, but they seem to know the 'locals' and leave us alone. They do hit up the tourists and can be rather relentless. All but a handful attempt to do 'something' to earn their pennies, be it sing, assist in locating parking spots, or offer up handmade works of art made from found objects. That said, the place changes somewhat when the sun goes down and the local security guards to home for the night.

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  28. Mr. dubya (and petrea's response) look good to me. As does modern Downtown, note cap pls.

    We dressed to go Downtown, we rode a streetcar. Now, I'm not that freakin' old but I liked that opening shot in Nowhere Boy. I have a record player. Easy Rider was first-run in a Downtown theater, saw it there in 19-and-69.

    Two weeks ago I parked at The Times garage at 2nd and Spring and proceeded to walk down to 9th and Maple to get some fabric for a play. It was a fine Saturday walk -- new residents out with dogs, having some joe here and there, moving in. New barber shop, new restaurants, dive bar now a hipster joint. Cleaning crews all over the place. bike patrols too.

    There's an effort. I'm glad for this.

    In an odd way the time stoppage when Downtown fell off maps -- say roughly 1979 -- 2000, when I stepped over biologicals to get into the LATC and we worried about actresses walking to their cars, now chicks in incredibly high minis strut all over, and after dark, what? -- preserved the great buildings by inattention. No one wanted them. No one tore them down. Wish that Richfield survived.

    Had a fine pasta and steak stir-fry dish that was Peruvian-Japanese for lunch, chili and shoyu, good combo, somewhere in the Fashion District near Santee Court. Black business type on his laptop, artsy chick reading, Latina fundamental reading her Bible, boy watching Japanese anime. Me chewing pasta, homeboy Angeleno glad to see the hometown return.

    I have no instant answer for homelessness in L.A. As detailed, it has categories, I believe them all, I've seen it. Some are forced, some don't care to leave, some are fated by birth, many are mentally ill. And loaded.

    The first scares: How close are each one of us? I know many out of work or under-employed. We here can swing a brotherly or sisterly loan, sleep on a couch, max out cards. Borrow on prop. We can move.

    You have none of the above? Why, you're screwed, aren't you?

    I'm liking what I see in Downtown Los Angeles. The new Downtown. The old-that-won't-go-away? -- sorry, can't win the Nobel.

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  29. Mr. dubya (and petrea's response) look good to me. As does modern Downtown, note cap pls.

    We dressed to go Downtown, we rode a streetcar. Now, I'm not that freakin' old but I liked that opening shot in Nowhere Boy. I have a record player. Easy Rider was first-run in a Downtown theater, saw it there in 19-and-69.

    Two weeks ago I parked at The Times garage at 2nd and Spring and proceeded to walk down to 9th and Maple to get some fabric for a play. It was a fine Saturday walk -- new residents out with dogs, having some joe here and there, moving in. New barber shop, new restaurants, dive bar now a hipster joint. Cleaning crews all over the place. bike patrols too.

    There's an effort. I'm glad for this.

    In an odd way the time stoppage when Downtown fell off maps -- say roughly 1979 -- 2000, when I stepped over biologicals to get into the LATC and we worried about actresses walking to their cars, now chicks in incredibly high minis strut all over, and after dark, what? -- preserved the great buildings by inattention. No one wanted them. No one tore them down. Wish that Richfield survived.

    Had a fine pasta and steak stir-fry dish that was Peruvian-Japanese for lunch, chili and shoyu, good combo, somewhere in the Fashion District near Santee Court. Black business type on his laptop, artsy chick reading, Latina fundamental reading her Bible, boy watching Japanese anime. Me chewing pasta, homeboy Angeleno glad to see the hometown return.

    I have no instant answer for homelessness in L.A. As detailed, it has categories, I believe them all, I've seen it. Some are forced, some don't care to leave, some are fated by birth, many are mentally ill. And loaded.

    The first scares: How close are each one of us? I know many out of work or under-employed. We here can swing a brotherly or sisterly loan, sleep on a couch, max out cards. Borrow on prop. We can move.

    You have none of the above? Why, you're screwed, aren't you?

    I'm liking what I see in Downtown Los Angeles. The new Downtown. The old-that-won't-go-away? -- sorry, can't win the Nobel.

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  30. I figured I'd put my ass on the line when I commented and avoided returning. I appreciate that you backed me up.

    Jack S. lived on Wall. Do you remember that he was held at knife point when he entered his building? He turned the tables on his attacker but afterwards the buildings owner put in a gated parking lot

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  31. Still in downtown but farther south outside the gentrified arts district (and we like it that way)

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  32. I don't remember that particular story, PA, but I remember some of the others. Do you remember where Jack lived? I just got back from the Alexandria Hotel, and it's still a work in progress, but well worth the visit.

    Darrell, I love this! You don't win the Nobel, but there's a Snickers with your name on it.

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  33. Fascinating comments. I was shocked and a little unnerved when I wandered onto a downtown street teeming with homeless people when I was out with a friend one night. As we passed a woman rolled up in a blanket, my friend said sadly, "No one should have to live like that." I've managed to avoid that area ever since.

    I definitely don't win the Nobel Prize.

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  34. An interesting text today... and responses. Hit a vein?

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  35. I haven't been to that section of L.A. in years. Every city has it, even mine.

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  36. when I was 17/18, a friend got kicked out of her house. She moved in with a boyfriend. The only thing they could afford was an apt around skid row. Stupid me went to see her. Parked my car, walked up to the building, went in, hung out, left WAAAY after dark. As I left, the cardboard sidewalks moved and mumbled. This was *not* in my vocabulary. I suspect everyone just assumed I was either an undercover cop, or crazier than they were to be there like that, and left me alone.

    Later, I used to commute thru downtown to get home. Esp when the Dodgers were in town, it was easier to go thru town than try to navigate the parking lot called the 110 (wait...might have still been the 11 at the time). After my mother's funeral, I tried to get back to the house thru downtown...am surprised I'm not still lost...wth? All the one way streets and shortcuts I knew were gone! We ended up taking an interesting tour of what was in downtown. The location of some of the crud has changed, but it is still there.

    I have to agree---if someone solves the homelss problem, a Nobel is in order. However, like the B wagon issue...sometimes, as hard as you try to fix it, it's as hard as they'll try to fight you.

    We used to have a homeless couple we helped. We tried to get them into a shelter. He was supposedly a 'Nam vet, couldn't do indoors very well. So they camped. Sometimes, that IS the best solution for the situation. Lack of mental health services contributes significantly. Lack of understanding the fears-real or imagined--of those living on the streets makes it tough to solve the problem. I'm waaay too logical to create the solution that will stick.

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  37. Karin, I agree. Downtown has changed drastically - for the better - since I worked there in the 80s.

    I don't feel particularly uncomfortable there and plan to spend more time downtown in future. Some great arts organizations, restaurants and architecture that shouldn't be missed due to fear.

    This summer, the Times did a terrific series on an attempt to cure long-time homelessness called Project 50.
    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-homeless-project50%2C0%2C4610742.htmlstory

    Most of the chronic homeless have underlying mental illness which they have "treated" for years with addictions. They are very hard cases and there's no quick fix. The series was fascinating and very honest about the mixed outcomes.

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  38. To paraphrase something someone once said about the Irish situation: "Anyone who thinks they understand the homeless problem doesn't understand the homeless problem."

    To veer away from the subject, what do you think of the sculpture in your lower photo? We have two of those lumps on California near Fair Oaks.

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  39. I agree, Susan and Birdman. Wonderfully rich comments, great stories and thoughts. I've read them many times over.

    Including yours, Trish. You bring so much personal history to so many things I write about.

    Karen, thanks for the link. I'm no expert, but I think there is a very blurry line between mental illness and addiction.

    Yeah, Bellis. When they were first building the Police Station a couple of years ago, my office faced one side, what I called the butt of the building. At first the lumps looked like, well... But the one I photographed (poorly) I rather like. I saw something more than a ... lump was a good word.

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  40. I am back but don't have the words. I"m conflicted, as I am about a lot of things these days. I'm torn about the homeless and what can be done. I don't have an answer. It breaks my heart is all I can say.
    V

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  41. I've worked downtown for nearly 30 years. There have always been a few homeless people near where I work, near Union Station. Have had a few less-than-desirable situations, but very few. You learn to adapt, they learn to adapt. Whenever I think of homeless, I think about how Reagan shut down the mental health facilities when he was governor. Don't know if that would have made a big difference. Not much to say about it all other than it seems to be a permanent fixture of life in America. It seems it wasn't always so.

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  42. Mister Earl, that's my memory, too. It wasn't always this bad. It changed when Reagan changed it. I don't know if going back to the same mental health provisions we had before he took office would help now, though.

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  43. Chronic homelessness did increase when Reagan closed the state mental facilities.

    But to be fair, there was a lot of pressure at that time from advocates for the mentally ill who deplored the poor conditions and lack of treatment in big lockups like Fairview in Costa Mesa.

    The idea was to mainstream the highest-functioning patients into community residential facilities, which sounded good to everyone.

    Problem was that no funding was set aside for that purpose, and Reagan wasn't about to increase government spending or add "new" programs, so the follow up care wasn't given and when the hospitals closed, a lot of people just got thrown onto the streets - where plenty of them probably are still to this day.

    One of the major failures/unintended consequences of what looked like a good decision at the time.

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  44. In my former life, I volunteered with my ex at the Long Beach Veterans weekend for the homeless. It was a full weekend that provided medical and dental services, eye care, glasses, job and housing services, etc, etc,...it was an incredible outpouring from the functional community to the "dysfunctional" community...What I found amazing, was that year after year, the same people came to the weekend for services. We talked to one, fairly young man, about why he was homeless and his response was that in the homeless community he was a leader...he also talked about freedom, not having to adhere to the social constraints that the rest of us follow. It was a fascinating, educational and very moving experience for me. And yet, it also put into perspective that the homeless issue is not a particularly solvable issue...the people who came for services year after year at the weekend event gave the impression that they were happy doing what they were doing and had no real desire to make changes to conform. The came in for the free services and left better off than they had been before, yet with little or no intention to change their circumstances...

    In addition, the majority of my career was working with severely emotionally disturbed adolescents in a psych residential program after having been incarcerated at juvenile hall...many of these kids were products of the addicted, homeless, and mentally ill as well...the greatest joy of my career was watching these kids go from "the tough guy" to becoming kids again, and enjoying things like a Halloween festival and dunking for apples...I believe that the most successful solution to this issue is intervention in childhood, the earlier the better. And often times should involve removal from the family...

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  45. This has been fascinating. You each bring something different to the table.

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