Response to Mayor Morse’s Statement on Lyman Terrace

2012/05/10 in Alex Morse, Development, Gentrification, H.U.S.H., HHA, HPD, Lyman Terrace, Poverty


In response to Mayor Morse’s statement on Lyman Terrace, I’d like to address a few false ideas and assumptions on his part, present a better vision, and suggest some ideas towards developing a better plan to realize that vision. One characterization Morse gets right is that the issues are complex. Unfortunately, his analyses and proposed solutions do not reflect that complexity. I can’t hope to cover it all here, but I’ll try to avoid replicating the problem of glossing over important considerations, and therefore my response will not be brief. To avoid cluttering the home page, I’m putting my response to the mayor in as a first comment to this entry.



2 responses to Response to Mayor Morse’s Statement on Lyman Terrace

  1. In response to Mayor Morse’s statement on Lyman Terrace (the full-length version of which is available on the mayor’s Facebook page, see link at the end), I’d like to address a few false ideas and assumptions on his part, present a better vision, and suggest some ideas towards developing a better plan to realize that vision. One characterization Morse gets right is that the issues are complex. Unfortunately, his analyses and proposed solutions do not reflect that complexity. I can’t hope to cover it all here, but I’ll try to avoid replicating the problem of glossing over important considerations, and therefore my response will not be brief.

    Defensible/Defended vs. Indefensible/Undefended Spaces

    Early on, Morse echoed the Holyoke Housing Authority’s description of Lyman Terrace as incorporating “indefensible spaces” which necessitate demolition. This raises a number of issues, which I’d like to look at in some detail, not because it’s the most significant of Morse’s contentions but because it’s so representative of flaws in analysis, understanding, process and planning.

    The concept of defensible versus indefensible spaces pertains to architectural design and usage which promotes or inhibits anti-social behavior, allows or impedes surveillance, and reinforces or challenges social stigma. Consider a pair of contrasting real life experiences. First, compare the activities of two groups of children in after-school hours: the first group played in a Lyman Terrace courtyard with countless adults actively watching from doors and windows while an older child reminded the younger ones to say “please” and “thank you.” The second group was over at the vacant Die-Cut Card building throwing rocks through upper-story windows and was observable to passing cars. It is of course the Lyman Terrace courtyard which represents the more defensible and defended of these spaces. So is the solution therefore to raze the historic Die-Cut building? I would argue better solutions include repairing, rehabilitating and reoccupying the building, so it is no longer vacant but instead is another source of eyes on and foot traffic in the neighborhood.

    Second, compare the experiences of my own property’s abutter with that of a Lyman Terrace resident. Shortly before I bought my home, a neighbor noticed a man disappear under the porch near a basement window. She called police, who responded, apprehended a suspect, and obtained positive identification. After speaking with the man, the officers reassured my neighbor that he was homeless but well known to them, believed to be harmless and merely seeking shelter, and had promised not to return there. Meanwhile, a Lyman Terrace resident has described coming home to find a non-tenant drug dealer operating his business from her publicly visible entryway. She, too, called police (in her case repeatedly over a period of months reporting the same activities from the same man), but she was put through to voice mail without further response. Eventually the man was killed near her door, and her young daughter witnessed the corpse. In physical terms, the Lyman Terrace unit was more defensible (inhabited rather than vacant, open entryway rather than porch overhang), and both properties were defended (both women called the police), but the Lyman Terrace resident didn’t get an appropriate response. That lack of response is related to community disempowerment and to social stigma. Is stigma in turn related to the physical properties of Lyman Terrace? Sure. But stigma is attached and reinforced through neglect and disinvestment — the HHA’s failures to provide adequate maintenance, repairs and management — not the basic design and structure of the buildings and campus, which I’ll discuss more in a bit.

    So is the only or even the best way to remove stigma to raze the buildings and relocate all the tenants (both those who want to leave and those who don’t)? Consider yet another story from real life in Holyoke: the very same neighbor who called police about the homeless man recently called police to report what she believed was a domestic violence situation in progress. She’d heard a sustained loud argument with a man’s and a woman’s voices as well as other loud banging and thumping noises and screams. When after a time she didn’t see a police response, she called back again. Eventually, multiple responders arrived. Some never got out of their cars. Others stood in the parking area but didn’t go into the building (even as the loud sounds were persisting), didn’t ask for statements from neighbors, and didn’t check with a young child who was waiting outside. Does that inhabited, multi-unit building need to be demolished, too? It is, by the way, in Churchill, within the bounds of the new community policing initiative and very near the lauded Churchill Homes (former Jackson Parkway), which are supposed to have been solutions for stigma, disengagement, and official neglect in our neighborhood. So does my neighborhood need to be razed (again), too? Does the fact that the loud argument was being conducted in Spanish justify police inaction? Does the appearance of a domestic dispute between adult partners justify police inaction? Just what decade are we living in here? Rather than demolition and mandated relocation, better solutions to the issue of stigma include (re)investment (both financial and social) in historic properties, real community empowerment and partnerships, and improved training and accountability for public servants.

    Use of the phrase “indefensible spaces” to describe Lyman Terrace implies it is the tenants who are active criminals or passive enablers. However, many, many tenants have reported repeated lack of responses or inappropriate responses from police and property management. In my own time at Lyman Terrace, I’ve literally never seen a cop there (as contrasted with frequent sightings at the margins of downtown and Churchill, along Northampton Street, around the mall, and on the major traffic routes of the Highlands). If the mayor is genuinely concerned with engaging tenants in anti-crime efforts, the community must be reached out to and its concerns listened to and addressed, law enforcers must be held accountable for their actions and inactions (Holyoke voters approved a Police Commission years ago, but it has yet to be created), and neighborhoods and community ties must be strengthened, not torn apart.

    In fact, the essential design of Lyman Terrace makes wonderfully defensible spaces. The shared courtyards and narrow lanes encourage interaction amongst neighbors. Each unit is garden-style, with its own entrance/exit. There are no common doors, which can foil law enforcers’ observation, and no shared elevators or halls, which can form unsafe spaces in other types of housing projects. This design also allows each unit to have its own street address (rather than a unit number), something identified as reducing stigma when residents apply for jobs, for example. Each also has a private but observable exterior space. Thus the essential design of Lyman Terrace is desirable and worthy of preservation, even as the property badly needs repairs, updates, and maintenance.

    That Morse could gloss complex issues by parroting a single unsupported phrase — “indefensible spaces” – might have a couple of meanings. One is that he picked up the bureaucratic jargon without fully appreciating the concept or how it does and doesn’t apply here. Another is retrospective justification: the HHA and Morse had already reached a conclusion — the buildings must be demolished and the tenants all relocated — and later sought rationales they felt would sound good to an uninformed audience. Finally, it is a way to deflect responsibility: blame the buildings and the tenants rather than hold officials like the HHA and the HPD truly accountable.

    Mischaracterizations of Those with Whom the Mayor Disagrees

    There is no small irony in the mayor’s explicit and implicit calls for unity, honesty and civility when in the very same piece of writing he claims “[t]o be sure, some would see doing nothing as a kind of success.” I’ve encountered no one who espouses the view that conditions at Lyman Terrace are acceptable as is and no one who believes perpetuating poverty and marginalization are good ideas. When Morse dismisses concerns about racism and gentrification as “worn-out arguments” and “reactionary scorn” rather than attempting to understand where those concerns come from or how they can best be addressed, it is he who obstructs productive dialogue.

    Urban Renewal and Public Housing

    Early “slum clearance” programs displaced people who were not the primary beneficiaries of new construction. Indeed, of those uprooted from the tenements torn down in 1938 to make way for Lyman Terrace, few ever made it into the new housing. Urban Renewal (sometimes described as “Negro Removal”) programs in the decades following World War II disrupted communities, dispossessed and further impoverished vulnerable populations (mainly African Americans and poor and working class whites), and created a critical shortage of affordable housing to make way for highways, sports arenas and vacant lots. The long fight to integrate desirable urban public housing was won just in time for “white flight” to the suburbs and disinvestment and neglect of city centers; impoverished minorities then sometimes needed to sue to get out of squalid and still segregated public housing. HOPE VI projects in the 1990s and 2000s stabilized some neighborhoods but continued the pattern of tearing apart communities, failing to benefit most of those who were displaced or the neediest cases, and destroying more housing than was created. In each case, the program was described as progress, shortcomings and objections were denied for years, and critics derided, but eventually there was some grudging acknowledgement of some problems (always described as long in the past, of course).

    Today, re-urbanization is reversing decades of “white flight,” and that process is projected to accelerate. It’s no accident that as people look forward to ever-increasing fuel costs and realize the many environmental and social benefits of re-urbanization, now is when suddenly there’s a strong push to (re)move the poor to the (new) peripheries of power and access (again). Locally, Holyoke is seeing significant investments downtown. Lyman Terrace is very close to the Transportation Center with the adult learning programs inside, the library, the Holyoke Health Center, child care, and the railroad station, where passenger service is expected to return soon. It is also close to numerous vacant properties which aren’t yet ready to house people, and the local and regional rental housing market is tight after losses from tornados, floods, and fires, and pressures from the foreclosure crisis and poor economy. In historical and contemporary context, then, plans to demolish Lyman Terrace at taxpayer expense, sell the land to a private developer, and relocate all tenants at once look less like a hand up than a shove aside.

    Improving Housing and Improving Prospects and Outcomes

    Morse writes, “Achieving this vision [of a revitalized Holyoke] will require our rejecting housing systems that, by design, keep generations of families in one place, and in poverty.” Doesn’t that sound great on the face of it? I can get behind that! But unfortunately, the argument is once again glib, poorly grounded, and misapplied. Much has been written about the relationships between poverty and housing, and some is extraordinarily thoughtful, considered, and illuminating. Other writings bring to mind the old joke about “social science” being an oxymoron. Even decent quality primary research findings get misconstrued, and then the distortions are passed along with little critical evaluation. I’ll try to untangle at least some of that below, but in the meantime, look again at the mayor’s sentence and consider that the history of urban renewal should teach us that preventing unwanted dislocation and allowing generations to stay connected in a wider community of choice, with realistic opportunities for ownership that don’t necessitate “flight’ as financial status improves, may in fact be part of the solutions for getting families out of poverty.

    To borrow from another Holyoke resident’s response to the mayor, Franklin D. Roosevelt would indeed be rolling in his grave to hear his name invoked as justification for this demolition/disposition and privatization plan. The Roosevelt administration’s ideas and policies, while imperfectly and unfairly applied (a running theme in U.S. history, just look at the evolution of access to the vote in a nation created to be a democracy), were based on public responsibility for social conditions. Public housing formed part of a safety net and provided an opportunity for upward mobility. In fact, the adults I have met from Lyman Terrace are either working, in school to improve employment prospects, elderly or disabled. Tenants contribute income towards rent, but wages are too low to support market-rate self-sufficiency. Some came to Lyman Terrace from crisis housing – a shelter or couch surfing – and the relative stability of well-located housing (with access to the central business district, child care, health care, public internet services, educational and career services, and public transportation) has improved economic security. Of course, Holyoke can and must do better, both for the physical conditions at Lyman Terrace and for the economic prospects of our residents. To hearken back to Roosevelt again, the New Deal wasn’t only about decent affordable housing, the New Deal used public investment to create jobs. Beyond more sensible plans and administration for housing, Holyoke needs to attract jobs with escalator potential to downtown.

    Many who argue for eliminating project-based low income public housing point to the Gautreaux data for support. Conventional wisdom is that Gautreaux (a 1976-1998 desegregation program in Chicago which moved some public housing tenants into private housing in the suburbs or in the city via vouchers) proved the superiority of private housing in suburbia for outcomes like educational attainment and income. But careful review shows data that is far less certain or sanguine for applicability here and now. What can be said is that for a specific population (self-selected applicants from public housing to the Gautreaux program, who were then screened for family size, financial record, and housekeeping skills; in other words, especially self-motivated and well-organized individuals), assigned non-randomly (the CHA asserted and it’s often repeated that a “first come, first serve” system led to random assignment to city or suburbia, but a researcher for HUD found otherwise), allowed into affluent suburbs in a controlled trickle (administrators took pains to ensure simultaneous mass relocation did not occur), tracked only if they remained in the program (so anyone who “failed” the suburban experiment and moved back to the city for whatever reason was no longer part of the data collected for analysis), and moved at a time in US history when city centers had been and were still losing population, investment and entry-level jobs while the suburbs had been and were still gaining all those things…those particular people in those particular circumstances did better. However, Housing Authorities which misapplied the data to shut down public housing projects have found the problems relocated and in some measures worsened rather than resolved.

    Section 8 certificates, also known as Housing Choice vouchers, have been the primary means of relocation from projects to be demolished, and these are what have been promised to Lyman Terrace tenants should HUD approve the HHA’s applications. So what does the data show for those recipients? On average, people living in public housing earn 10% more income in the first year than Section 8 voucher recipients. It takes six years on average for Section 8 recipients to achieve income parity with non-recipients. A few explanations for this abysmal record have been hypothesized: that “choice” is illusory as private markets continue to exclude or direct people of color and the poor, that tenants in public housing are more motivated to earn and to achieve self-sufficiency, that people who move to more affluent neighborhoods don’t establish networks that aid in finding better jobs (e.g., living side-by-side with the affluent doesn’t automatically improve economic prospects for the less affluent, particularly in recessive economies with high competition for jobs), and that people who remain in poorer neighborhoods have networks which don’t lead to connections for better jobs. As a matter of policy, it would therefore make more sense to bring better jobs to poorer neighborhoods while protecting residents from unwanted relocation and fostering positive interactions between population groups.

    In an attempt to replicate the Gautreaux successes while avoiding the overall choice voucher failures, HUD embarked on the Move to Opportunity program in five major cities from 1994-2004. Applicants were randomly assigned to groups, and the target group moved to housing in more affluent neighborhoods while control groups were comprised of existing Section 8 users and new Section 8 recipients who remained in high poverty neighborhoods. The “study failed to uncover positive effects [of moving to an affluent neighborhood] on labor force participation, welfare use, and educational performance and the crime results were unclear. After moving, MTO adults were victimized less, but adult youths committed more crimes.” Researchers did, however, find significant gains in health indicators. As a matter of national and local policy, though, does it make more sense to require the poor to use vouchers to relocate into affluent neighborhoods, while simultaneously preventing mass movements into recipient neighborhoods, or is it more sensible to (re)create the infrastructure that gets affordable healthy food choices into poorer neighborhoods? To clean up brownfields and decrease pollutants? And to improve health education and community engagement around health issues? It’s been incredibly frustrating to me to sit in various planning meetings where residents’ requests for improved food access in the Flats is dismissed because no lot exists that’s large enough to support a suburban-style supermarket with a sprawling parking lot attached; Holyoke’s planners are apparently unaware of small urban markets, like the small grocers, ethnic markets and bakeries which used to be located in the Flats and could be once again.

    Who’s at the Table, Who’s Listened to and Afforded Credibility, and Who Decides?

    Compare the first words of two sentences from the mayor’s statement: “[t]hroughout this process, I have been meeting with HUD officials…” versus “[j]ust this week, I met with roughly 25 residents of Lyman Terrace….” Who is consulted from the beginning and throughout the process, and whose voices are afforded an audience later, essentially just as window dressing?

    Similarly, the HHA has very rightly consulted HUD officials throughout their processes, but very wrongly, they did not include tenants and the wider community in meaningful ways. So who makes choices from a full array of options (renovation or demolition, in phases or all at once?), and who is offered pre-selected choices (a voucher or a one-time payment, this plan or nothing at all?) after the real decisions have already been made?

    In his statement, the mayor omits mention of another voice at the table: private for-profit developers. The HHA has said in public meetings that they consulted with private developers while writing the RFP for Lyman Terrace, so as to be sure the RFP would be sufficiently attractive to them. In leading a walk-through of the site for prospective developers, a HHA senior manager stated at least three times that I heard, “We’re looking for you [the developers] to tell us [the HHA] what the highest and best use of the property is.” It’s a skewed worldview. In truth, the full community should have voices in determining best use, and developers should be consulted or partnered with in service to that community vision.

    After a public outcry about demolition/disposition prompted the attention of elected officials, the HHA included the option (per the developer’s discretion) of conveying the property with the buildings, but the RFP still calls for 100% relocation of all tenants before property transfer, including those who do not wish to leave. The processes and framing engaged in by the mayor and the HHA point to an essential question for our democracy: is the role of government to use public monies to make private short-term investment more lucrative and to represent the wealthy and the powerful, or is the role of government to represent broad, myriad and long-term public interests, to protect the less powerful, and to ensure a minimum universal floor for decent standards of living and opportunities for achievement?

    With regards to making Lyman Terrace a mixed use (combining commercial and residential) development, I am a fan of neighborhoods where residential populations can access good and services, and opportunities for work and play, by foot. However, not every building or every block needs to or should be mixed use. Also, the city’s priority for commercial property development should be to encourage the redevelopment of the numerous vacant or underutilized historic buildings downtown before more are lost to neglect. Forward-thinking cities accomplish this through attention from planners and through property tax structuring. A particularly bad idea is simply to lower the commercial rate, as the mayor has advocated, which penalizes residential owners (who have to make up the revenues for the city’s budget), and which mainly benefits commercial “property hoarders”(those who hang onto property without using or appropriately maintaining it, in hopes that eventually frustrated officials will offer top dollar for urban renewal or that an escalated real estate market will leave the owner sitting on a goldmine after others have done the actual work of revitalization). Instead, raise rates but offer credits for appropriate occupancy and use. Also, participate in the Community Preservation Act to finance historic and open space preservation as well as maintaining affordable housing for future generations. Finally, direct commercial developers towards renovation and reuse, not towards demolition and new construction, and keep incentives linked to desired outcomes.

    As for the idea of replacing low income public housing with a mixed income development, I have some concerns, and tenants have also expressed mixed views. One consideration is the loss of affordable housing and the loss of housing units at a time when Holyoke should be attracting more residents downtown; whether on-site or scattered, there should be 1:1 replacement, and density should be maintained for the urban core. Some tenants feel mixed income housing will bring better maintenance and attention, but other tenants bristle at the notion that living next-door to middle class people will bring needed moral improvement to their lives, and others express worry about worsened community ties and individual morale because mixed income housing doesn’t necessarily yield positive interactions between socio-economic classes. “Keeping up with the Joneses” isn’t possible when one neighbor is affluent but another is stuck in an entry-level, low-paying job without better prospects available. Again, the issues are complex, but (regardless of whether there’s demolition and new construction or renovations) instead of a paternalistic approach, tenants — especially those who want to stay or return – should be included in the conversation about who the future neighborhood will include and how.

    On the topic of conversing with tenants, Morse writes, “Much of the meeting consisted of clarifying plans and correcting misinformation….” So in his only meeting with tenants, the mayor seems to have spent more time explaining than listening. Also, the comment raises the issue of credibility for official narratives versus informal community information networks. I’ve heard tenants say their requests for maintenance are often ignored, and I’ve heard HHA managers deny this. But I’ve witnessed a report which took weeks and required additional contacts to get a response, and I’ve seen very obvious lack of basic repairs and poor quality of repairs. So whose stories are more true, the official or the informal? Tenants have told me that in meetings with the HHA, they’ve often felt manipulated or snowed and that HHA employees provide English-Spanish translation that’s incomplete and inexact, but HHA officials say the communication and translation problems I witnessed firsthand were just a one-time aberration. Which is more likely? The HHA has pointed to Jackson Parkway as proof they have a good track record with mass relocation, and they’ve said every tenant who’d wanted to return to the rebuilt Churchill Homes was given the opportunity to do so; but a Lyman Terrace resident’s son told me his father had been a tenant at Jackson Parkway and was not able to return, and another tenant told me he’d been through a similar experience at another Hope VI project out of state. Given what’s known of the national picture and of the local data (219 units demolished and a rate of return around 5%, possibly less), whose versions are more credible? If instead of having a single meeting with 25 tenants, the mayor had instead held a series of tenant and community listening sessions and meetings, he might have more credibility when he offers reassurances about officials’ intentions, and he might understand that citizens raising concerns aren’t simply acting as unthinking obstructionists but are committed to engagement for finding better solutions.

    Blame vs. accountability

    On the day Mayor Morse published his statement on Lyman Terrace to his Facebook page, I attended a public meeting of the HHA Commission. There, I witnessed some accountability in action: Commissioners wanted to know more details from HHA management about why the HHA was being asked to absorb revenue losses for a few cases of tenants from another project not paying their portion of rent. HHA management and legal representation explained an unusual situation and said that in most cases, if a tenant fails to pay rent, eviction can be achieved in 1-2 months, and attempts will still then be made for collection. Commissioners asked their questions because they were paying due diligence to responsibility for the financial bottom line. But I also witnessed a lack of accountability: who has been paying attention to HHA management for tenants’ needs and quality of life?

    Morse points to years of past failures and neglect for the current situation he has inherited, but again, he glosses the issues. Real accountability looks both backward (how was money for property management and upkeep spent? what mistakes were and are being made?) and forward (how do we ensure mistakes aren’t repeated?) for deeper analysis and planning. Morse remains silent on advocating such investigation, and he offers no assurances for how he plans to use his authority for appointments to the HHA Commission to further needed changes. So instead of true accountability, Holyoke’s getting another round of the blame game, and the mayor is passing the buck instead of articulating and advocating for solutions.

    The Case for Renovations

    Compared with demolition and new construction, preservation with appropriate renovations has many benefits. It is more cost effective (comprehensive renovations are usually around 40% of the cost of new construction, and the failed 2010 Hope VI estimates for Lyman Terrace bear that out: $24 million for renovations versus $56 million for new buildings on that site). It preserves historic architecture and a visual sense of place appropriate to a city center. And it is inherently more green/environmentally responsible. With appropriate updates and maintenance, the service life of historic masonry buildings is indefinite (unlike today’s poorer quality materials and craftsmanship).

    Phased Implementation

    Morse is correct that either demolition or renovations will necessitate relocations, but he’s wrong to assume relocations must be accomplished all at once. If tenants who prefer to take vouchers and leave were allowed to do so, the resulting vacancies could be used to accommodate those who want to remain on site while renovations are implemented in phases. At the same time, nearby properties should be made ready for occupancy, including opportunities for ownership, so tenants who achieve self-sufficiency have the ability to remain part of the downtown community if that is their choice.

    Choice Neighborhoods

    Morse mentions recommending an application for a Choice Neighborhoods grant. It’s worth a try, but the odds aren’t encouraging. A more realistic approach would involve finding a responsive and responsible development partner to navigate complex financial pathways to secure funding for a community-driven plan.

    “Room to Grow”

    Growth should mean increasing downtown Holyoke’s population, not losing some to gain others. Holyoke has plenty of room for growth without compulsory displacement, but unwanted displacement is the very distinction between harmful gentrification and healthy revitalization.

    Better Process, Better Vision, Better Plan

    In his first paragraph, Morse notes discussion around Lyman Terrace is more than just ideas for a piece of property, it’s about visions for community and for progress. But this framing of the debate fails to acknowledge that for over 400 people, it’s also a conversation about home. For some, that home has been horribly dysfunctional, but for others it is a foundation for stability and community. Some tenants very justifiably feel held hostage in lousy conditions while officials have made little progress towards meeting their needs (and among those, some would love choice vouchers and wouldn’t return, but others want to be able to return to improved housing at the same location), while other tenants wish not to leave at all, and their voices have been completely shut out of the official processes thus far.

    A better process would be more transparent, honest, and inclusive of more varied tenant, expert and community views. A better vision would be one which attends to real complexities (after all, what could be more grossly oversimplified than a wholesale razing?), and which is, again, inclusive. A better plan would provide a specific outline for how to get from here to there, and it would establish systems for ongoing engagement and accountability.

    For me, specific criteria for evaluation would include 1) meaningful and ongoing input from tenants, experts, and other members of the community, 2) accommodation of as many first choice preferences as possible for diverse tenant needs and wishes (where it is not presupposed that 100% demolition and 100% relocation must occur at once), 3) prompt improvements for tenants’ quality of life, 4) thoughtful repairs and updates for the buildings, units, and campus, 5) preservation of historic exteriors and appropriate materials and design for any in-fill, 6) a supply of decent and well-managed low income housing secured at a prime center city location for years to come, 7) creation of sustainable systems and partnerships with real accountability for long-term management, maintenance and problem-solving (such as a willingness to support and work with a strengthened Tenants Association), and 8) appropriate relationship to comprehensive planning and revitalization efforts for downtown.

    I agree wholeheartedly that Holyoke can and must do better, particularly for the most vulnerable. But unfortunately, the HHA and Mayor Morse continue to fall far short.


    Direct quotations above are from the mayor’s statement (posted May 3, 2012 here: and Thomas D. Cook’s, “The Missing Pieces: Housing, Health, and the Moving to Opportunity Experiment” (posted December 5, 2011 here:

  2. Very well done. Thank you.

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