Thursday, March 9, 2017

Under the Expressway: Marking Time on Brooklyn's Third Avenue

This is the first part of a series on Third Avenue, Brooklyn.  Currently, the focus is on Third Avenue between Prospect Avenue & 38th Street.  I have the great fortune to collaborate in the series with photographer Larry Racioppo, who grew up in South Brooklyn & Sunset Park. This first installment is largely historical in its focus, but in subsequent posts we'll be looking at more recent aspects of life on the avenue.  An extract of this piece will be appearing shortly on Brooklynology, the blog of the Brooklyn Public Library's Brooklyn Collection.  

I'm drawn to city borders.  Not 'edge of town' divisions, but the ones inside the city limits, where infrastructure, for better or worse, creates some kind of boundary: a rail track, a highway, an elevated train line.  They're city landmarks, hardly ever for their architectural merits, but as barriers, and bold font strikes on a map.  Sometimes the route of a train line or highway creates a neighborhood, sometimes it hews to an older route, and sometimes it breaks the pattern of a long-established grid. Sometimes it divides communities forever.   As I walk in the city, I often follow elevated train lines. Partly it's a question of light - the shadows of the slatted tracks falling on the sidewalk or a building in the late afternoon - and partly it's the sound of the train juddering overhead.  And if you happen to be up there, the shift of the platform beneath your feet as the train arrives or departs brings the platform, the journey, the permanence of anything at all, into the slightest moment of doubt. And then life composes itself again.  Right around the elevated lines, things moves more slowly.  While Els in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn were dispensed with over half a century ago, in much of the city they're still the way of life.  From a train car, a ride on the tracks offers unparalleled views of the urban landscape.  I take the F or the D or the Q as much for the journey itself as for the shore at the end of the line: those views of sky and of rooftop, of ragged graffiti tags, of in-your-face encounters with cornices, upper-floor window drapes and every variety of store sign.  I take the train to escape the moraine of over-hyped territories farther north. It's a relief.  But I'd just as soon be down below, where life still accommodates knots of businesses resistant to rapid change.  The floating garment murals of the J & R laundromat, the clinking cocktail glasses of the Starlite Lounge, the Couch Potato of New Utrecht.  Miraculous survivors, Julius Knipl would be reassured by all of them.  And borders like these make for a kind of infrastructure demimonde, where time and place are blurred at the edges.


Larry Racioppo, 1993
Away from the elevated subway lines, there are darker borders. Living close to Third Avenue, I dip into the sub-expressway stream regularly,  especially in the nearby teens and twenties. And its waters are deep.  There's an overlay of history here.  A Lenape homeland is 'acquired' and farmed by Dutch & later other European settlers.  The area witnesses the Battle of Brooklyn. Paths become roads, then avenues; horse-drawn street cars become trolleys.  A grid fills in with housing and industry, and a succession of immigrants make their homes in the brick and frame rowhouses close to the bay. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Third is marked by the growth of the working waterfront and its attendant industries. The area's booming. By the early 1940's, Commissioner Robert Moses' Parkway arrives, and a by now flagging waterfront gets a shot in the arm from the production demands of World War II.  After the war, the area's economy sags again. The Parkway has helped to usher in the Age of the Automobile; a flight from city to suburb ensues. It also leaves Third both physically & environmentally scarred. For those immigrants who come to the neighborhood post-war, steady, well-paid jobs are thinner on the ground, and like the rest of urban America, by the 60's and 70's the area falls victim to economic and social turbulence. After a period of slow, steady recovery at the end of the century, the waterfront becomes once again a speculatory landscape, ripe for 're-purposing,' and bigger, outside players are ready to make moves on the area.  As a misguided realtor put it, blissfully unaware of a typographical Freudian slip, the area's "bourgeoning."

The avenue today is certainly softer than it used to be, and pictures of thirty years ago show as much.  Its transition continues, and commercial rents and property prices are booming.  Some of the older businesses are holding their ground, while others are closing or moving away.  There are fewer auto shops today, and the sex shops - video parlors and strip clubs - are thinner on the ground. Industry City, once dubbed by the New York Times "the Soho of Sunset Park," promotes a re-invented neighborhood, replete with co-working 'creatives,' and 'artisans,' and catering to expensive tastes. An $18 cup of coffee and a $600 marble dog bowl are yours for the taking here.  A developer-driven city plan for a sleek new BQX streetcar on Third is purported to help transit-starved lower-income residents, but many suspect other motives behind the apparent benevolence. Some residents and businesses are buoyed by the new wealth coming into the area, while many others fiercely resist the forces of gentrification and displacement. UPROSE (United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park) Brooklyn's oldest Latino community-based organization, founded in 1966, is a prominent voice in this resistance, fighting for equitable urban policies that serves the needs of all the community.

Even tamed from its harder-edged decades, Third's still got its own rich, particular presence, and the aging expressway's still formidable.  Ever-cautious, I race across its lanes, but if the light's against me mid-way, I have to admit I don't much mind. I like the expressway's dank median, sometimes so much that I'll miss the white light and have to wait all over again.  Look about: a bevy of trucks, an exterminator's van worked over in technicolor, a windscreen memorial to a lost driver. Look up: the girders do have a certain beauty, and the shade of green paint that coats them looks like oxidized copper.  Still, I can't believe they're capable of holding up the traffic overhead.  How does this hulk of iron & cement stay standing?  By all objective standards I should hate the expressway, but that's not entirely the case.  Against my better judgement it draws me in.

Much of the history of this area is well documented - its colonization, its its waterfront heyday, and the waves of colonists and immigrants - Dutch, Irish, Scandinavian, Polish, Italian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Central American - who have made this piece of Lenapehoking their home. But some of its history is vague in aspect.  The first Dutch house in Brooklyn was sited where exactly?  A nineteenth century streetcar stable partially survives a Moses demolition blitz, but fades into anonymity. Photographs record the demolition as it happens, but what of the photographer himself, who remains something of a cipher?  We'll look at a short stretch of the avenue, between Prospect and 38th, and observe its passage through time.  We'll see it through the shadows and the girders of expressway, and we'll walk with Whitman - "one of the few artists who could see past the infrastructure to the souls it carried" - for inspiration.

"When Commissioner Moses finds the surface of the earth too congested for one of his parkways, he lifts the road into the air and continues it on its way."
                                                                                                                            November 1, 1941 - New York Times

Gowanus Expressway (bottom, left) - BPL   
At the opening ceremony for the Gowanus Parkway, The Times, effusive with praise, cast Moses as an Olympian, and in the process of planning and executing his parkway vision he certainly showed a Greek god's indifference to mere mortals.  Residents along the parkway's southern path pleaded for an alternate route, taking it along Second Avenue instead, away from the commercial hub of Third, but Moses had little sympathy.  He declared the area around Third "a slum," and suggested that using the existing structure of the elevated train line below 38th would be a money saver.  For Third Avenue residents north of 38th there was no elevated line; the Fifth Avenue El traveled down Fifth from Flatbush, before it swung over to Third at 38th.  In The Power Broker, Robert Caro's brilliant biography of Moses, Caro describes the effect the Parkway had on the Sunset Park community, but he pays less attention to the northern section of the Parkway route, and concentrates instead on the area from 38th to 63rd, defined as Sunset Park.   The issue of neighborhood names arises here.  The date by which Sunset Park (below 36th or 38th) became a neighborhood name & not just a park is hard to call, though some sources have cited it as the 1950's or '60's. By most accounts though, the area above 38th was still South Brooklyn in 1940.  And before it was South Brooklyn, it was Gowanus.  Today the stretch above 38th is one of those moniker no-man's-lands. Is it South Brooklyn (outdated by now?), Sunset Park, or the newer Greenwood Heights? Today the Sunset Park border begins anywhere from 16th south. (Perhaps the Parkway & the Prospect Expressway markers. were influential here.) Neighborhood names, it seems, are fiercely guarded, and today they fall victim to realtor appropriation & hyperbole, and the backlash to same.  They depend on standpoint - age, ethnicity, political persuasion, economic interest.  Where you live though, is largely a consequence of when you arrived on the scene.

The Sunset Park Caro focused on in The Power Broker suffered more than its South Brooklyn neighbors when the Parkway was built, in that the parkway divided a substantial residential community, west of Third Avenue, from the rest of Sunset Park, but all along the avenue's path the effects were catastrophic.  Extensive demolition took place around Hamilton Avenue, the northern point of the Parkway, and all along the east side of Third a more than one hundred foot slice of buildings was demolished.  Over 1,300 families were displaced.

And through that shadow, down on the ten-lane surface road beneath the parkway, rumbles (from before dawn until after dark after the opening of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel flooded the area with freight traffic) regiments, brigades, divisions of huge tractor-trailer trucks, engines gunning and backfiring, horns blasting, brakes screeching, so that a tape recording of Third Avenue at midday could have been used as the soundtrack for a movie or of a George Patton tank column.  And from above, from the parkway itself, came the continual surging, dull, surf-like roar, punctuated, of course, by more backfires and blasts and screeches, of the cars passing overhead.  Once Third Avenue had been friendly.  Now it was frightening.
















Larry Racioppo, 1993

The never bucolic Parkway became an Expressway in 1961, when it was widened, and redefined as an interstate.  This was all part of an expansion, through Bay Ridge, to the yet-to be-completed Verrazano Bridge, with more demolition & displacement along the way. Whatever its name, the roadway has never been popular.  A blight on the avenue, a danger to pedestrians and drivers alike, a source of noxious environmental damage.  For decades it's served as a symbol of transit failure: its design outdated, its structure degraded, and its capacity to handle traffic woefully insufficient. It's synonymous with bleak traffic updates on 1010 WINS.  For decades the community has demanded its replacement, and for a while a tunnel looked like a real possibility, but plans were ultimately shelved. 'Interim' repairs continue.


You rows of houses! you window-pierced facades! 
you roofs!
You porches and entrances! you copings and iron 
guards!
You windows whose transparent shells might 
expose so much!
You doors and ascending steps! you arches!
You gray stones of interminable pavements! you 
trodden crossings!

     Walt Whitman, "Poem of the Road" - Leaves of Grass, 1856


















Third Avenue, 20th to 18th, P.L.Sperr, 1940, NYPL via OldNYC

As the Parkway construction took place, one photographer was particularly attentive to the changing landscape. Percy Loomis Sperr was perhaps the most prolific documentarian of New York City streets in the 1930's and early '40's; the New York Public Library has over 35,000 of his photographs in its collection, and most were taken during this pivotal era of city history.  Sperr not only documented Robert Moses' infrastructure handiwork all over the city, but he also captured other aspects of the era: Hooverville shanty towns, neon store signs, the street life of peddlers and tradesmen, the cross-dressing Ragamuffin children -precursors of Halloween trick-or-treaters - lounging on corners in flapper dresses or gangster suits.  Other, more intimate shots, include a set of Staten Island library photographs, attributed to Sperr, from the 1920's; one shows a group of children lining up at a mobile book truck in Linoleumville. The bulk of his pictures, though, are focused not on people but on block after block of streets and avenues. Though the commercial routes he photographs are bustling with foot traffic, more often his streets are practically deserted. When people do intrude, they don't take center stage but are caught, peripheral to the frame or the purpose of the shot.  How mysterious they appear. We'd like to zoom in and get a closer look, but they're resistant to contact.  Sperr was no art photographer; his pictures are mostly functional and and low-key, but they evoke a sense of place, of a city life that looks little changed since the turn of the century, now suddenly disrupted.  Sperr himself is something of a mystery.  An itinerant photographer, crippled by meningitis since childhood, he somehow or other earned the title Official Photographer for the City of New York, but a NYPL librarian told me there was nothing formal about its relationship with him; he sold the library pictures on an ad hoc basis for five or ten cents apiece. Details of his life are scant.  Originally from the mid-west, Sperr arrived in New York in the 1920's, with hopes of a literary career, using photography to illustrate his written work.  His writing found no success, but he kept taking pictures. His motives become ambiguous, though, as the volume of photographs increases.  Is he selling them primarily to eke out a living, or to fund a compulsive vision?

He was often asked, he wrote in 1934, "Is that all you do, just go around taking pictures?"
"Yes," he would answer. "Taking a few thousand pictures a year, and selling enough of them to pay for the expense does not leave much time for anything else."
Still, he said: "My own interest is in the story rather than the picture.  It is the picture which tells the story.   As literally as possible, I would use the 'universal language' and 'say it with photographs.'  The story which interests me is one which lends itself to unlimited photography - the tale of the City of New York."

Sperr's pictures are 'literal.'  The Times refers to their "haunting ordinariness," and"banality," but his work is more far-ranging than The Times gives him credit for, and besides, there's a lot to be said for the art of the ordinary. Nothing is posed here and life goes on.  The city proceeds about its business, and Sperr, often traveling on crutches, is there to witness it.  Sometimes, when his camera catches one of those deserted streets, with a row of brick and frame houses lined up at a certain angle, the picture evokes an air of Hopperesque melancholy, and if, like me, you've looked through thousands and thousands of his images, you feel you've almost become a Time and Again traveler. Accumulation counts.

Sperr records before and after scenes the length of the Gowanus Parkway route, as buildings tumble and (above 38th) new girders rise.  The piles of rubble-strewn lots presage both New York scenes from the 1970's, when swaths of the city burned, and the current construction boom, when it seems almost every city block hosts a building site.  Here's Third at the south-west corner of 24th, in 1940,




Here's the same corner today.















Larry Racioppo, 2017

Here's Third at 21st with girders rising (1940).



















By the early '40's, Sperr's relationship with the Library appeared to draw to a close, and he withdrew to Tompkinsville, Staten Island.

A 1943 letter in the library files states: ''Percy Sperr came to 204 last week and announced that he had gone into the secondhand book and print business on a small scale, specializing in material pertaining to New York. He has an office on Staten Island, near his home.''
He opened a used-book store and sold poetry and old comic books, three for a dime. He admitted occasionally drifting off to sleep, ''which isn't good for business.''
But his business card still listed his wares: ''A growing collection of over 30,000 views of New York Harbor; ships, old and modern; skylines, dock scenes, harbor craft, sunsets, bridges, naval vessels, New York City, all five boroughs; street scenes, skyscrapers, old houses, foreign quarters, pushcarts, farms, old New York scenes.''

He died in 1964, at the age of 75.
I don't know how Sperr managed to make his way around the boroughs when he took his photographs, but even on crutches, I think he must have walked long distances.  I imagine him belonging to the grand tradition of city walkers, the kind of character Whitman might have taken by the arm to help along an avenue, and a figure whose romantic urban quest might have entertained the likes of Joseph Mitchell.  It's high time for his life and work to be given greater recognition.


"Ever the eaters and drinkers ... ever the upward and downward sun
                                          ... ever the air and the ceaseless tides,
 Ever myself and my neighbors, refreshing and wicked and real,
 ... Ever love ... ever the sobbing liquid of life"                                         
                                                 Walt Whitman - "Leaves of Grass," 1855

With Third widened, the line where the original buildings on the east side of the avenue stood is now under the expressway itself.   If you stand there and listen carefully, underneath the roar of overhead traffic you might hear ghosts.  In the latter half of the nineteenth-century and the early twentieth, the Brooklyn Eagle teems with stories of the avenue, and there's something Whitmanesque in the raw, physical, close-quarters world they evoke.  Aravetta Eiresla, at 647, charges Amelia Anapella, at 659, with cutting off her ear.  Professor Eugene A. Weiner, "the aged and eccentric musician," drops dead in his room at 668.  The avenue is rife with kerosene fires - the wood-framed houses especially vulnerable - and street-car accidents abound.  Street and saloon fights, falls from fire-escapes or stairs are common occurrences.  Illicit romance evolves between employers and employees, and sisters -"model girls" -run off with men offering to show them "a good time" at Coney Island. Eddie Dobson, 10, "the little life-saver" from 713, rescues a child drowning in the bay. The Herbst Funeral Parlor is on record at two locations on Third, and its motto - When Shadows Gather - seems prescient.  In 1918 Herbst buries a master carpenter, Peter Ench, who helped to build the Coney Island elephant hotel.




















An Art Deco Herbst ad, 1927 - Brooklyn Eagle


























January 26, 1918,  Brooklyn Eagle

Godfery's Instant Humbug Drugstore, advertising horse remedies, operates at 685.  Clubs, halls, and early picture houses flourish: the Third Polish Pulaski Social Club, the Weitkus Dramatic Clubhouse, the Norsemen's Bicycle Club, and across the way, the Industrial Co-operative Universal Brotherhood. The Norsk Tidende newspaper has its offices here.  Small boys, as well as performing courageous deeds, get into trouble, pilfering from stores, and throwing horse-chestnuts from the windows of street cars.  A "red-headed woman" calls a neighbor names and attracts a crowd.  The cries of domestic abuse ring out loud: "he tried to brain her with a jimmy"; "she hit him with a smoothing iron."  A man declares his wife "incurably insane." There are an astonishing number of suicides on record, though some attempts seem accidental, or are insurance ruses. He "tried to kill himself after two weeks of a drunken debauch"; he "tried to hang himself' (delirium tremens).  A man attempts suicide with Paris Green, a cynadide-based poison used in wallpaper and rat bait. The story of a suicide down at the water is drawn with pathos.

























May 21, 1883 - Brooklyn Eagle

The Eagle stories also give us a fresh and immediate sense of the kinds of jobs & businesses of the period: longshoreman, carpenter, mason, ironworker, butcher, saloon keeper, street car conductor, fishmonger, launderer, farrier, junk dealer, fruit seller, plumber. Photographer(635). A 1916 map indicates some of the industries west of Third.  They include lumberyards, iron works, a planing mill, a saw company, a Spanish Cedar factory, and Parson Bros. Straw Hats.  A veritable Song for Occupations.

Another Eagle story concerning Third Avenue entwines two strands of history a century or so apart. It seems there's no chronological way to proceed on Third.  Just as the Lenape path and Gowanus Road meander, and just as the land itself weathers and erodes, discoveries bounce you back and forth in time.  In 1857, workers excavating for construction of the Brooklyn City Railroad company stables, uncovered a skeleton.


















Was this a forgotten hero of the Battle of Brooklyn?  When I read the story, a year or so ago, I had no idea that the stables, built for the horses & cars of the first streetcar line along the avenue, were ever here, and I found myself idly wondering under what current business the skeleton had actually been found.  The liquor store, the adult video store, Safety King?  Rossman's fruit & vegetables? The answer was right there under my nose (and the expressway). The stable building mentioned in the Eagle article was built on the east side of Third Avenue, taking up a whole avenue block and almost half of the lots along 25th & 26th. This is the site where the skeleton was found in 1857, and much of the original structure is still standing.

The Brooklyn City Railroad Company was chartered in 1853, twenty years after horse-drawn street railway cars were established in New York, and by 1854 the Third Avenue line from Fulton Ferry was up and running.  Later in the century the BCRC became electrified.  The company was bought out by the Long Island Traction Company, and later acquired by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT).  By 1898 the stable buildings appears to be no longer in use by the BRT, and by 1903, a Hyde map shows them occupied by a wallpaper company, National Express stables, and a sash and door company.  In 1940, when Parkway demolition began to take place, the 26th corner was occupied by a box company.  A big chunk of the buildings along the Third Avenue side were demolished, & the front of the stables, where Safety King & Frame it in Brooklyn now operate, has a 1940's facade, but the 26th street side is largely untouched.  Once you realize the stable is there, it's obvious how old this building is, but I walked by it many times in the past without recognizing its age. It might be one of the oldest surviving buildings in Sunset Park, and I wonder how many people are aware of its origins.



















OMFS, 2015

























John D. Morrell, 1960, Brooklyn Historical Society




















Larry Racioppo, 2017

























Larry Racioppo, 2017


















OMFS, 2016




































Views of the NE corner of Third & 26th, pre- and post-demolition, 1940
P.L.Sperr,  NYPL, via OldNYC

























Third Avenue at 24th, next to Lovers Lane - Larry Racioppo, 2017



Behind what is revealed lie layers of national histories and cultural rituals and religious traditions and family lore.  The city is a fossil record, and every layer you peel back exposes another layer whose contours reveal only our limitations in knowing the city.
                                                                      Rebecca Solnit - Nonstop Metropolis , 2016

Third between 18th and 38th is close to the water.  Having fallen into decline in post-war decades, business is now brisk.  Recent arrivals and newly sold holdings along the water include the Lafarge Cement Terminal, the Sunset Industrial Park, the SIMS Municipal Recycling Center, the Liberty View Industrial Plaza, and Industry City (part of the original Bush Terminal, now being developed by major shareholder Jamestown Properties).  The Ferrara Brothers concrete company will be moving here from its Hoyt Street location in two or three years (right at the spot pictured above), after decades of leasing the land it once owned, which was seized by eminent domain in the '70's. Also on the scene is the Metropolitan Detention Center, which opened in the 1990's.  Several weeks ago it seemed likely that the newly-extradited Mexican drug lord El Chapo might be taking up residence there, but the Brooklyn Paper broke the story that security issues at the jail were keeping El Chapo in Manhattan. According to the Brooklyn Paper, the MDC has a history of problems involving contraband, and even though security above ground is apparently tighter now, below ground it's another matter.

Feds crowed that El Chapo will “face American justice in a city that’s foundation is bedrock,” during a press conference announcing his extradition to the U.S.
That’s true for the Manhattan lock-up — but Sunset Park sits atop a squishy mix of dirt and rocks deposited there by a glacier 15,000 years ago — not the tough-as-nails bedrock that Manhattan sits on, according to a local geologist.
“Manhattan bedrock extends into Brooklyn, but ...the earth beneath Brooklyn’s jail at Second Avenue and 30th Street — a two-minute walk from the Gowanus Bay — is all “sediment and boulders,” he said.

Before the Dutch arrived here in the seventeenth century, the land along the bay was cultivated by Lenape Native Americans, and the waters produced a rich bounty of marine life, including many types of fish, and oysters.  In 1630's, the Dutch began settling the land, acquiring it through nominal purchases. The Lenape were allowed to remain on the land that had been taken from them, but the arrangement was an uneasy one.

Violent skirmishes over contested lands pitted Dutch settlers against native tribes – and competing tribes against each other – throughout the seventeenth century.  Some Native Americans were taken as slaves and sold off to Dutch outposts in the Caribbean.  Regular smallpox outbreaks further decimated the population.  By the eighteenth century, most remaining Native Americans migrated further east on Long Island, or moved westward into the Delaware River valley and beyond.

The Dutch village of Gowanus centered around what is now 24th to 28th Streets.  Travelers of the time made their way along the bay on a Lenape pathway, and the Gowanus Road, which was opened in 1704, followed a similar route.  Though the Gowanus Road was closed in the early nineteenth century, when Third Avenue was opened, you can still see it indicated on maps in the early 1900's, a ghostly pair of broken lines rising and falling below the avenue.  Its movement mirrors a Gowanus Bay tidal graph.
















Mobile Geographics

The Bennet House, which has been acknowledged as the first Dutch house in Brooklyn, was located somewhere between the current 26th and 28th Streets.  It was built around 1636, but was burned down in 1643, described by Henry Stiles in his History of Brooklyn as "a year of blood." The house was re-built on the same site, and eventually demolished when Third Avenue came into being. This appears to put it in the twilight expressway zone currently inhabited by cars, trucks, and tourist buses on their off-hours rest breaks.  It's hard to pinpoint the exact spot, but this one, at 27th, seems about right.


















OMFS, 2017

Today the village boundaries are anchored by the Lopez Byway auto-shop ("30 Years of Honest Business"), Hilti construction tools, the Edward F. Lukoski VFW Post, and (approximately) the Lovers Lane video store, or a vacant lot.  A resonant quartet.

Farther down Third, around 37th to 38th Street, was the Simon DeHart-Bergen house, built in the 1660's.  Its early history is brought to life in the journal of Jasper Danckaerts, a Labadist missionary who visited the DeHarts during a trip to New Amsterdam in 1679-80.

We proceeded on to Gouanes, a place so called, where we arrived in the evening at one of the best friends of Gerrit, named Symon.[116] He was very glad to see us, and so was his wife. He took us into the house, and entertained us exceedingly well. We found a good fire, half-way up the chimney, of clear oak and hickory, which they made not the least scruple of burning profusely. We let it penetrate us thoroughly. There had been already thrown upon it, to be roasted, a pail-full of Gouanes oysters, which are the best in the country. They are fully as good as those of England, and better than those we ate at Falmouth. I had to try some of them raw. They are large and full, some of them not less than a foot long, and they grow sometimes ten, twelve and sixteen together, and are then like a piece of rock.



























The house was demolished in 1885.  A Costco stands on the site today.




















OMFS, 2017


















Gowanus Bay, with the DeHart house, at left - George Heyward, 1867



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