The sun's close to setting here on Chouteau Avenue, just south of downtown. That little Amoco gas station on the corner of 14th Street is the closest convenience store around, and those white boys who don't get out of their fancy cars are coming here to shop. But not at that Amoco. It's the wares sold on the sidewalks that they want. Just across the street from the gas station, on the other side of Chouteau, are rows and rows of apartments, carved into hotdog-shaped low-rise buildings organized in some semblance of a linear pattern -- think arbitrary parallels and perpendiculars -- from Chouteau to Park Avenue. Good people live in these apartments, and those white boys who won't get out of their fancy cars might believe it, too, if they tried to meet 'em instead of use 'em. These are the Peabodys. Or, in St. Louis Housing Authority nomenclature, the Clinton-Peabody Public Housing Development. Or, in the language of public housing, simply a density of poverty. Once upon a time, those low-income reservations -- the Pruitt-Igoes, the Cabrini Greens -- were touted as the wisdom that would solve the riddle of housing the poor. Later, the wisdom itself -- the high-rise clusters, the low-income densities -- would become the riddle.
And so, directly adjacent to Clinton-Peabody's eastern boundary, again on 14th Street but catty-corner to the gas station, stands a lonely sign crying hope. It's a sign standing sentinel for the 30-acre Darst-Webbe high-rise site, now reduced to a dreary expanse of broken dirt where the Webbes stood, developed into nearly completed homes with vinyl siding and street-facing brick façades where the Darst buildings were. Together, until they were finally demolished in 1999, the high-rises loomed as a paradigm (much more so than the squat Peabodys) of public housing's densities of poverty.
But the feds are wiping the slates clean, and now deconcentration happily walks hand in hand with public housing's future -- manifested in the newest of wisdoms, labeled HOPE VI. The wisdom now behind the plans for Darst-Webbe. Mixed-income housing replaces densities of poverty. Riddle solved.
The sun hasn't sunk yet back on Chouteau, and there's a plucky 19-year-old named Versus McBride on the sidewalk who seems content to pass the time until it does. Dressed comfortably for a mid-June evening in red sweatpants and a cut-off black T-shirt, Versus has just graduated from Vashon High, he'll proudly tell you, and he's fixing to go to college in Arkansas. He has a head for numbers, and this teenager with his scraggly beard contemplates being a teacher someday or maybe even getting into computers. That's where the money's at, after all. He's a handsome enough kid, but right now he's the source of amusement for a gaggle of teenage girls from Clinton-Peabody. Versus lives there, too, but he's a transplant, relocated from Darst-Webbe. And tonight he's busy grinning off such sass as "They shoulda just knocked down the Webbes with the people still in them."
Versus, though lettered in life and not policy, is already well aware what HOPE VI can translate into -- for him and for the neighborhood that's always been home. Fewer low-income homes mean fewer low-income families -- and fewer low-income families where there were once more low-income families.
"There's no way we gonna move from here," says Versus, his stare suddenly gone from playful to intense. "We enjoy the shit down here. They can't take that from us. If you right here, every day a Cardinal game go on, right on the riverfront, the VP Fair, hockey games. We like that type of shit, too. We like waking up in the morning and looking at the Arch, looking at the businesses downtown. I'm not gonna move from downtown. It's a beautiful-ass sight, waking up in the morning, sun coming up over the Arch."
Versus pauses as if to catch his breath. His dark eyes peer north, toward downtown, then south again, and he jerks a lanky arm toward the defunct City Hospital: "A lot of people born in that hospital. That hospital damn near home to them. People love the projects; this is their home. Second of all, they the one who said ..." Versus fumbles for the right words. "It was they choice to move to the county. Now, they like it here close to the city" -- which means replacing the needy with the not-so, or what St. Louis' own Bertha Gilkey, public-housing resident turned queen of the elder President Bush's HUD policy, has dubbed "urban cleansing." "They can't just move us like that," Versus says, fidgeting uneasily. "We pay taxes, too. We got rights, too. These are low-income houses. We used to have five projects in one place. This is ours. We were here when they was raggedy, falling apart. Now we gonna stay when they new. They can't make us move like that. I ain't gonna move. Away from here, I can't see the Arch unless I had binoculars."
Darst-Webbe held 256 families in August 1993, according to the St. Louis Housing Authority's monthly activity reports. In July 1994, there were 224 families. By 1995, 187 remained. In 1996, 134. Finally, in February 1998, just months before the development was emptied for demolition, just 116 were left. The attrition rate at Darst-Webbe, in fact, was almost double that of neighboring Clinton-Peabody. The people -- where did they all go?
Here at Clinton-Peabody, ask enough questions, knock on enough doors, talk to enough people enjoying the twilight on their porches and you'll likely find a few folks who were once tenants at Darst-Webbe. Of course, many of the people who were relocated here have left. "A lot of people gone," a slender woman with gentle almond-hued eyes quietly offers from her concrete porch. She adjusts her headwrap. "All these people over here," she says, languidly motioning at the southern perimeter of Clinton-Peabody, along Park Avenue, "we the only two families left -- a lot of people just moved on." The woman speaks of the families that have all but disappeared, those who lived at the Darst-Webbe high-rises just across 14th Street. Some, before the housing project fell, were relocated to Cochran Gardens, others to LaSalle Park and still others here, to Clinton-Peabody. Then there were those who were evicted. Those who could move out on their own. Those who were hastily handed vouchers. Those who couldn't afford the rents.
But look closely. Those swimsuit-clad grade-schoolers playing in the water spewing from that uncorked fire hydrant on LaSalle? Some of those are from the Latimore family, which came from Darst-Webbe. The development's families, in fact, are scattered across Clinton-Peabody, all the way from Park to Chouteau -- the Latimores down Hickory Lane, the Chatmans on LaSalle Street, the Wysingers right next door. Some believe the Housing Authority prefers that the rest remain lost, prefers that they never come back -- because, many claim, the Darst-Webbe HOPE VI plan was never intended to help low-income people, or, at least, enough of them. If it had been, wouldn't all those families living in Darst-Webbe way back in the mid-'90s (when talk of HOPE VI first began) expect to be moving back into new apartments? Shoot, nobody even knows where most of them are now. "They had planned it for years, anyway," insists Willie Wilkerson, a former Darst-Webbe tenant who no longer lives in public housing. "They just didn't know where to put people at and all that type of stuff. They didn't do nothing but make it harder for them, because now they gotta pay electric, gas; you know, a lot of people didn't have to do that up there. It was just straight rent. So it was kinda hard on some people.
"Some of them still down there -- they packed 'em into Peabody," Wilkerson continues. "The majority is packed into Peabody. They had a lot of them vacant; they had a whole lot of them vacant for years, man, for years. And now, all of a sudden, they just fixed 'em up, which they could have been did for a lot of people a long time ago, for a lot of homeless people. They coulda did that a long time ago. But now, since they want that area, they piled everybody up into the Peabodys. They fixed them up now and put 'em there. And now they finally give them their little cable and stuff like that. But, you know, some people can't afford them; some people could. You just kinda gotta go with the flow. That's all you can do."
"It's a game," declares Lebet Lewis, a former Darst-Webbe tenant. Lewis now owns his own home in North County. "I see it as a big game. If you watch it and see how they do stuff, man, just trip off it. It's a game, whether you win or lose, you see where they coming from. You see it, man, they doin' what they wanna do. They just doin' what they wanna do. They don't care who fall off, who starve, who don't got no home. They don't care. But we always knew that. We always knew that. It's a serious game, but it's life; it's where you take it."
It's the age of HOPE VI, the federal public-housing initiative that, since 1992, has broadened from a rehabilitation program to a replacement program and, now, to an ambitious neighborhood-redevelopment program in which benefits eventually trickle down to the poor. The side effect: Private developers, now partners with the feds, can tap into millions of public dollars without the customary tangle of red tape. Along the way, as HOPE VI broadened and developers became more aggressive in neighborhood redevelopment, room for the poorest of the poor has become more and more scarce. Hope VI began by replacing 75 percent of the public-housing units demolished; now it's expected to replace less than 40 percent, even though it's hard to come by evidence of any decrease in the need for affordable housing.
It's the age of HOPE VI, and the Blumeyer Community Center, off Compton Street near Delmar Boulevard, is not particularly crowded. And perhaps, if not for the spread of chicken wings and crunchy vegetables carefully laid out at the back of the room, the turnout might have been even sparser. The June gathering, the third such meeting in preparation for the St. Louis Housing Authority's $35 million HOPE VI vision to replace Blumeyer's public housing with a new mixed-income project, is largely dominated by the elderly -- and a nattily attired troop of representatives from developer McCormack Baron and Associates who, with housing officials, are tenaciously riding a newfound wave of wary community acceptance after a bout with initial rejection.
Indeed, not much more than a month before this evening's meeting, some five or six dozen Blumeyer residents turned out for a nighttime prayer vigil to protest plans for their development's demolition. Nevertheless, tonight the mood at the community center is decidedly different (Blumeyer's residents will even grant the developers a raucous round of applause later in the night), though the only change since the previous month's protest was clueing in Blumeyer's residents about what is to come. "I challenged a lot of things, but I had never challenged the federal government," says Arnetta Kelly, who, as tenant-association president at Blumeyer, helped organize both the opposition and, later, the support. "It was an experience. I learned a lot. The residents are so happy now. At first they were so fearful of having to move. Now, I just want to dig that first dirt for the new building."
Included in McCormack Baron's plans for the low-income neighborhood, bounded on the north and south by Page Avenue and Delmar Boulevard and on the east and west by Compton and Teresa avenues, are scores of middle-class niceties: rows of homes pushed back from sidewalks, trees lining narrower streets, a sprinkling of community parks, smaller block sizes. The presentation is anchored with verbal links between the developers and the residents: the neighborhood that will now be our neighborhood, the development process that will be resident-driven and the plan that will be connecting the community. "Right now, we see a neighborhood that looks more institutional in character than a real neighborhood," purrs a McCormack Baron visionary to a receptive audience. "We think our job is to make it invisible -- as to income. No longer should you be able to drive here and say, 'Oh, this is Blumeyer.'"
That's the plan for Darst-Webbe as well: to make poverty invisible. It doesn't look like it just yet, but come August, folks will begin moving into the first phase of Darst-Webbe's mixed-income HOPE VI development, which, in keeping with the vicinity's French theme (Soulard, Lafayette Square), is aptly named King Louis Square. Stan Presson of Pyramid Construction Inc., the project's developer, says almost 160 applications have already been sent in, with good reason. Attorneys are seeking to live here. Teachers. Police officers. Grad students. The phase's 152 units offer 13 different floor plans and eight styles of homes. Thirty-six of them, as public-housing units, will be controlled by the Housing Authority. There's an on-site management office. Gated parking. Central air and heat. Washers and dryers in each unit. Dishwashers. Not one but two telephone and cable outlets. But now, construction workers are still scrambling to prepare the site. A through street bisecting King Louis Square is still unpaved. Two-by-fours are strewn on the ground. Dried mud cakes the sidewalks. Vinyl siding is still wrapped in plastic. Inside the homes, the carpeting hasn't yet been tacked down onto the plywood floors. Some walls are still unpainted. But it's the potential that Presson is excited about. "There's a beautiful view of downtown, too," he says, pausing at a window on the second floor of a three-bedroom home.
"Look what's possible on the site of former public housing that was kind of a rough place," he says. "John Danforth likes to say downtown is on the brink. Well, this is new, too. When City Hospital gets turned around and this gets up and going, this will be a very vibrant neighborhood."
The plans for Darst-Webbe began in 1994, and, in January of the next year, the Housing Authority was awarded a $46.7 million HOPE VI grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Originally the authority proposed demolishing all 758 Darst-Webbe family units and replacing them with a mixed-income development of 525 units, 200 slated for family public-housing rental. The plan also called for the construction of additional rental and sale units in off-site locations and demolishing the nearby City Hospital and Malcolm Bliss Mental Health Center complex.
But in August 1997, after HUD declared that the Housing Authority was in default on the HOPE VI grant because of the authority's failure to move forward with funding to demolish the hospital and Malcolm Bliss, the agency scrambled to come up with a revised plan. The new plan reconfigured the housing mix: There would now be 80 family public-housing rentals, of a total of 300 family rental units. Of the remaining 220 units, 44 would be tax-credit units (on which the developer gets a tax credit and the tenant gets a break on the rent), and 176 would be market-rate rentals. In addition to the 300 family rentals, there would be 250 single-family and duplex sale units, 50 of which would qualify as public-housing-eligible units. Finally, 102 units would be set aside as public housing for the elderly, along with 30 units for the disabled. There's hope that money can be found for 72 more off-site family-ownership units -- these, too, public-housing eligible.
In short, although 758 Darst-Webbe family units have been razed and at least another 152 units of Clinton-Peabody are marked for demolition, the new HOPE VI development has a mere 80 of the 682 units reserved as family public-housing rentals. Both residents and housing activists gladly say it's not mixed-income development they oppose, it's this decrease in the number of family-rental units that has them losing hope.
Nathan Dear is ranting -- well, as close to ranting as Dear, who handles the hotline calls at the housing-advocacy group Housing Comes First, gets. He's a sweet-tempered man (and a cook with considerable talent as well), seemingly ill-equipped to authoritatively demand the attention of a wayward waiter in a restaurant, much less come through with a timely diatribe against the powers that be of low-income housing who make his job more difficult. Dear's smooth features, beginning to show hints of roundness, tighten as he earnestly explains his work while sitting behind his desk on the second floor of Westminster Presbyterian Church on Delmar. Dear, who says his organization takes 3,000 housing-related calls each year, is ostensibly trained to aid tenants on issues of housing law. "But since the need for housing has been so great, I've been dealing with people trying to find housing," he says, shrugging incredulously. To prove his point, he steps from behind his scuffed desk and heads for a cabinet. He returns with an armful of referral records and thumbs through them. "Harassment. Looking for housing. Privacy intrusion. Looking for housing. Looking for housing," Dear recites. "Just been released [from prison], looking for housing -- I'll probably send him an affordable-housing list and just tell him to be open and honest about it.
"I'm depressed," he concedes. "It depresses me because you know you want to help these people but you can't, because you're fighting the bureaucracy of the system because there's not enough low-income housing. Sometimes I try to make the calls for them. We try to refer them to the Housing Authority first; I feel if they find a place at the Housing Authority ..." He trails off, then picks up again: "The Housing Authority needs to make it easier to get a home. I don't understand why the waiting list is so long. Everybody who calls the hotlines say they're waiting a year, at least a year. And there's no deadline date. You'd think they could give them some sort of time frame. It's just bureaucracy," he spits, "bureaucracy of trying to find a place."
There's no denying that an affordable-housing crisis exists. In the draft of its annual report to HUD, the Housing Authority identified more than 26,000 St. Louis families -- the worst-case needs -- who earned less than 30 percent of median income. More than 1,000 families are on a public-housing waiting list that has been closed since May 7. About 2,400 wait on the Section 8 list (though the names can overlap), which is usually closed. Compounding the problem are these numbers: Whereas there were nearly 7,000 public-housing units in the early '90s, there are 4,766 today, and of those, some 1,600 "severely distressed" units will be torn down in the next few years. "When I talk to people, I tell them it's worse than a crisis in St. Louis," says Katrina Knight, director of the Housing Resource Center, which takes in more than 20,000 housing-related calls, 10,000 of them unduplicated, every year. They would take even more calls, she says, but the current system can't handle any more volume. "Who knows how many more people are out there?" she wonders. And the problem's not limited to St. Louis. Public-housing stock, once neglected, is steadily depleted while HUD churns out report after report bearing red-flag titles such as "Waiting in Vain: An Update on America's Rental Housing Crisis," "Losing Ground: The Impact of HUD Budget Cuts on America's Communities" and "Rental Housing Assistance: The Worsening Crisis." The nation has seen a decline of more than 370,000 rental units affordable to families with the lowest incomes. Furthermore, HUD says, working families with children are being hit the hardest.
"I don't think this is a crisis that anybody anticipated," Knight explains. "I don't know if anybody saw that it would get to this point. And the waiting list? When you're in crisis, unless you can help me today, you can't help. Right now it's closed -- the waiting list is closed. Does that make them feel better, help them resolve their problem? Unless you have something concrete, you haven't really helped. I would like to extend public housing as an option for people. We try as best as we can. What they want is public housing, you know. But we have to be honest with them and tell them they should not count on that in the near future because in the meantime, where is your family going to go?"
This, this is the question for Darst-Webbe's HOPE VI, now being contested in federal court in St. Louis. The plaintiffs are tenants associations for Darst-Webbe and Clinton-Peabody, along with Housing Comes First; the defendants include the Housing Authority and HUD. The question for the courts: How many family public-housing rental units are enough? In 1995, when the Housing Authority first applied for the HOPE VI grant, its answer was 200. Now, after offering a new plan in 1998, the agency has reduced the number to 80. With public housing's dependence on congressional appropriations and federal decision-making, it's these courtroom battles -- like that of Darst-Webbe here in St. Louis, like Cabrini-Green in Chicago -- these micro-level battles of 20 more low-income units, or 40 more, or 100 more, that create any hope for affordable-housing advocates. Other than this -- these few units fought for here and there -- there seems to be none. "On a macro-level ..." housing-rights attorney Dan Glazier begins. His voice tapers off as he removes his glasses and rubs his eyes, pondering the concept of hope: "Frankly, I don't have much." Then, managing a wry smile, he replaces his glasses.
"We only have so much money," responds Cheryl Lovell, the Housing Authority's director. She works within a federal policy, Lovell readily concedes, that helps those already in public housing -- unarguably, HOPE VI improves the quality of their public housing -- but does little for the thousands waiting to get into public housing. And so, for Darst-Webbe, Lovell is working with what she has. What she has are 80 family public-housing units. "Everybody tosses around the number 80, but you forget there are more than 80 in that project," Lovell says. "There are 102 elderly units; there's money in that development to reconfigure Clinton-Peabody, to make it a more desirable place to live. There are some low-income units for sale in the plan. It's not limited to the 80 family rental public-housing units that are there."
Technically, Lovell is right. She even forgets to mention the 44 tax-credit units also available for low-income people. But reality doesn't always mesh with technicality. More than 90 percent of waiting-list families are considered extremely low-income, earning less than 30 percent of the area's median income. For these families, 80 new public-housing units that aren't even enough to satisfy the families originally relocated from Darst-Webbe doesn't mean all that much. Nor does the fact that a tax-credit three-bedroom unit may be a deal at $540 per month compared with a market-rate unit for $705 per month. (Tax-credit units are low-income housing with fixed rents, unlike public housing units, whose rents are based on a percentage of the renter's income.) As for the home-ownership units Lovell mentions, those are targeted for low-income families earning 60-80 percent of median income, or about $28,000 per year. Before relocation, the average Darst-Webbe family earned about $6,500 a year.
There is thinking, though, that at least some low-income public-housing tenants -- those earning substantially more than $6,500 a year -- will be channeled to tax-credit units and home-ownership units. "Am I telling you that somebody with extremely low income can afford a tax-credit unit? That depends," Lovell says, answering her own question, "that depends on exactly what the rent for the tax-credit unit is, because it's a fixed rent. Our waiting list has almost entirely extremely low-income, that's true, but there are low-income people out there that are having problems with affordable housing as well.
"Now, as far as the loss of overall public housing units, [including] the 1,600 that have to be torn down, you'd have to ask Congress about that," she says. "They give you the money; they make the rules."
Rule-making, though, rarely takes into account notions immediate in nature, notions of home, of a sense of place. In the summer of 1995, the Housing Authority conducted a survey of Darst-Webbe residents to determine the relocation preferences of the families living in the development. At the time, 197 families still lived in Darst-Webbe. The results indicated that almost 85 percent of the Darst-Webbe families favored returning to the site once the HOPE VI revitalization was complete. Now, it would be hard to make the case that the 85 percent of the families still at Darst-Webbe even in 1998 will be returning to the site.
Torre. Erick. Brenda. Virgie. Linda. LaTasha. Tyrone. Beverly. Lionel. Charles. Maria. That's 11. Count 'em. Meet 'em. Round faces like their father and dark, gleaming skin like their mother. All, like their parents, are quick to smile. Torre's the baby, 8 months old and trying hard to walk. He doesn't have much trouble supporting himself -- there's always an elbow or knee handy in the crowded Chatman living room. Trouble is, the owner of the elbow or knee is liable to sweep him up off the ground before Torre's even had a chance to work up a sweat. "Y'all leave him alone so he can learn how to walk," chides the kids' mother, 32-year-old Linda. "He can't do nothing 'cause y'all keep pickin' him up." Maria's the big sister; she's 17. LaTasha just got a 4.0 on her last report card. Charles, athletic and sturdy, is a football player at Vashon. Tyrone, he boxes down at the gym at 12th and Park. Virgie'll read out loud all day if you let her. Brenda, 4 years old, is already a ham. "Whassup, my dawg?" she brashly greets a stranger, then, just as brashly, demands five, which she happily returns with an enthusiastic smack, then requests another five.
Linda Chatman and her family have made the newspapers before. In the fall of 1998, Linda headed the last family to be moved from Darst-Webbe. Married into the Chatmans, she's originally part of the Latimore clan, an extended family so large that when the high-rise project was still standing, an entire building was unofficially named after them. Linda is the third-eldest of 12 brothers and sisters ... 11 now, since her children's Uncle Freddy was shot and killed a few years back.
Today, along with her family, she represents those tenants who won't be moving back to the Darst-Webbe site once the King Louis apartments are completed. Her problem isn't the timing of her move from Darst-Webbe but the size of her family. The new development won't have any apartments with more than four bedrooms -- even though at least 13 of the last families relocated from Darst-Webbe in 1998 needed apartments with more than four bedrooms. "I already knew I wasn't going back," says Linda. What's worse is, her family may not be able to continue staying at Clinton-Peabody either, given the planned demolition of 152 units. "I don't know what they gonna do, but I'm going to remain here till they decide whatever they going to do with me. They trying to make it hard for all the big families. They making us homeless. Pretty soon they'll be asking for these apartments over here. I don't think they're helping us any."
Like Linda Chatman, Mary Slaughter isn't coming back, but it's her own decision. Soft-spoken and with time in her eyes, she was one of the lucky few. She got out. And now she makes the rules. She won't allow more than one of her grandson Stevie's friends to come inside her home at once. The others, they can just wait outside. This home, this home on Louisiana Street, just off Cherokee Street, it's hers. That's more than most former Darst-Webbe residents can say. She's spent 37 years of her life in the projects; left Darst-Webbe in 1997 and doesn't plan on going back. "I just got completely fed up with it," she says. "That just a racket, it's just what it is. They said, 'If you want to, you can move back.' I wouldn't move back over there now. I don't want no part of it."
The way 19-year-old Stevie tells it, his grandma talked the owner of the house down to $45,000 and then proceeded to pull the cash out of her purse, right there (Slaughter insists she's making payments on the house). He remembers being confused when she told him to start looking for a house to buy. "First she always says she don't have no money," he laughs. "I ask her, 'Grandma, if you don't have no money, what do you want to look around for?' Well, she says, 'I got a couple of hundred that I could put down on a home.' And that house ours for sure, glad of that. Grandma pulled out 50 G's from her purse. That was lookin' like 'Where did you get all that money?' And I'm there lookin' at her, 'Where did she get all that from?'"
Not many Darst-Webbe families can scrounge up the money to make a down payment on a home, much less pull 50 G's from their purse. For them, where home is depends on government rules.
"Think about it from a realistic standpoint -- it's kind of hard to want to pack up and move again," remarks Fonda Fantroy of the Guardian Angel Settlement Agency at the Clinton-Peabody site. "Some of them, they've been moved many times. I was just going through the logic things, you know, the things that you and I have to do when we have to move, when you have a family. I have to notify my doctors, my insurance company; change of address; get accustomed to new routes to go places, new buses. Some of these families had to do that three or four or five times. My other concern is, are the families given fair options here? Again, do they all get the option to come back?"
So now hope -- the more immediate hope for more options, for a decent home -- rests not with HUD in Washington, D.C., not with the Housing Authority here but with a federal judge in St. Louis.
Those who hope -- the Darst-Webbe and the Clinton-Peabody tenant associations, as well as Housing Comes First -- have asked the court for an injunction to stop HOPE VI midconstruction and order the government to build more family public-housing units than are planned. Judge Stephen Limbaugh is hearing the case this week.
And the Housing Authority's hope? That should Limbaugh decide the government ought to build more family public-housing units, the good judge would ask that of HUD, not just the Housing Authority. "We don't have the money," says Lovell. "That's been the problem all along. If the court orders that with no source of funding, we won't be able to do it. We don't have the money. I don't know. I would say, if we can't comply with a court order, we'd probably have to abandon the grant. I don't know what would happen. If the court orders that and the court orders HUD to provide more funding, that might work. But if the court doesn't order HUD to provide more funding, I don't know what's going to happen."
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