The Newtown Pentacle

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serious citizens

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It’s National Rice Pudding Day, in these United States.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My quest to observe and photograph certain rumored artifacts, carefully hidden by the administration of Queens Borough President Curly Joe Cassidy in 1903, which an anonymous source informed me were recently uncovered by the labor of construction crews that were pursuing the lustful ambitions of their Manhattan based masters (to erect yet another bland residential tower here in Western Queens) was fruitless. Some things, it would seem, will remain hidden.

Perhaps that is for the best, for if the community as a whole was to ever truly understand the history of Long Island City… anarchy and red rage would reign as they abandoned all pretense of civilization. Men would become wild and mad, without moral convention or law, and they would would find new and savage ways to enjoy themselves, abandoning even “lip service” allegiance to that extraterrestrial thing which they once referred to as “God.”

Defeated, aimless, lost in ennui and abandoned by serendipity… a wandering mendicant and humble narrator soon found himself, like every other piece of wind blown trash in New York City, at the Newtown Creek. The Dutch Kills tributary of Newtown Creek in the Long Island City section of Queens, specifically.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dutch Kills was in a queer condition this particular late afternoon in the August of 2017. The burning thermonuclear eye of God itself hung squamous in the sky, occluded by vast gray and white agglutinations of atmospheric humidity. Recent rain had enriched the nutrient load of the water with raw sewage, causing a bloom of the photosynthetic organisms which feed on both fecund decay and the eye’s emanations. Within a few days, these single celled plants would choke themselves to death on their respiratory waste gases, and the water will turn brown as bacterial populations explode while consuming their corpses. The bacteria produce a waste gas which men call hydrogen sulfide, offering to passers by an aroma not unlike that of rotting eggs. A few days later the water will blacken as the self same bacteria, in turn, are killed off by starvation and asphyxiation. Their rotting colonies will in turn feed a new generation of algae, which will overpopulate when the rain again brings the sewer tide and the cycle begins anew.

The smell of the green creek is onerous and inescapable, and the brown creek is something else entirely. The stink of the black creek… let’s just call that “unusual.” It’s all very depressing, where unwholesomeness reigns.

A smell reminiscent of swamp dwelling reptiles was omnipresent on the day these photos were collected.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dutch Kills was choked with 19th century industrial waste products and mounds of manure produced by pack animals when Michael Degnon began construction on the flooded waste meadows formerly owned by Governor Roscoe P. Flowers, back in 1909. Filling in the swamps with rocky till harvested from the subway and railroad tunnels his company constructed, Degnon’s goal was to build the greatest industrial park in the country hereabouts. The Degnon Terminal promised lots of sufficient size to construct enormous factory buildings, like the Loose Wiles “Thousand Windows Bakery,” as well as offering terrestrial railroad and “rail to barge” connections. Dutch Kills was bulkheaded under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers, it’s wetlands filled in, and industry was invited into “America’s Workshop.”

Borough President Maurice E. Connolly located his offices alongside Degnon’s, in what modernity refers to as the “Paragon Oil Building” on 21st street and 49th avenue, but which was built as the “Subway Building” and served Connolly as his Borough Hall.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Maurice E. Connolly, like all the Borough Presidents of Queens, was presented at inauguration with a 1661 scrap of parchment left behind by William Hallet. Describing a degenerate offshoot of the Lenape civilization encountered in Western Queens, who were rumored to be members of a shunned cult repudiated and suppressed by the larger aboriginal civilization, this dark knowledge is a closely guarded state secret which has been passed from leader to leader since the early Calvinist era of the Dutch colony of Nieuwtown. As far as I’ve been able to discern, the Borough Presidents of Queens have faithfully maintained the ignorance of Mayors and Governors, and that even the executive branch of neighboring Brooklyn is unaware of what the ancient message transmits.

What the document says about these Native American devil worshippers is known only by the intended recipients, but that soon after reading it, Connolly began allocating funding to a vast swamp draining and land reclamation project in Queens. He installed miles of sewer pipes in pursuance of draining western Queens, many of which lead directly into Dutch Kills (accusations and convictions for corruption related to this effort are what finally removed him from office, after 17 years, in 1928).

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On the day these shots were captured, a bizarre amalgam of floatable items were observed in the solute rich compound which we will simply refer to as “water” for simplicity’s sake. Frizzled and black, these buoyant items were observed floating along on the tepid currents of Dutch Kills. It was a fairly low moment in the tidal cycle, but the start of the flood tide cycle was pushing in from the main spur of the Newtown Creek, and the black polyploid objects were meandering north towards the turning basin.

A zoom lens was employed, in pursuance of getting a closer look at the mysterious flotilla.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Whatever the material of ebon hue was remains a mystery to me. I can report that there were odd streaks, as carried to the surface on bubbles of biological gas rising from subaqueous depths, of oil and coal tar present.

Who can guess what secrets might be hidden in the sediments beds of black mayonnaise, where all the sins of the twentieth century reside and mingle?


Upcoming Tours and events

Brooklyn Waterfront Boat Tour, with Working Harbor Committee – Saturday August 12th, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Explore the coastline of Brooklyn from Newtown Creek to Sunset Park, with NCA Historian Mitch Waxman, Andrew Gustafson of Turnstile Tours, and Gordon Cooper of Working Harbor Committee on the narrating about Brooklyn’s industrial past and rapidly changing present. details here.

The Poison Cauldron of the Newtown Creek Walking Tour, with Newtown Creek Alliance – Sunday August 13th, 11 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.

Explore the hellish waste transfer and petroleum districts of North Brooklyn on this daring walk towards the doomed Kosciuszko Bridge, with NCA Historian Mitch Waxman details here.

Two Newtown Creek Boat Tours, with Newtown Creek Alliance and Open House NY – Wednesday August 16th, 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

The neighborhoods surrounding Newtown Creek are home to the densest collection of these garbage facilities anywhere in the city and collectively, the waste transfer stations around and along Newtown Creek handle almost 40% of the waste that moves through New York. Join Newtown Creek Alliance’s Mitch Waxman and Willis Elkins  to learn about the ongoing efforts to address the environmental burden that this “clustering” has caused. details here.

DUPBO Newtown Creek Walking Tour, with NYCH20 – Thursday August 24th, 7 p.m. – 9 p.m.

Explore Greenpoint and Hunters Point, with NCA Historian Mitch Waxman details here.


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modern matters

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It’s Street Children’s Day, in the Republic of Austria.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dutch Kills, a tributary of Newtown Creek which abruptly turns north off the main channel three quarters of a mile east of the East River, is entirely contained within Long Island City. It’s crossed by five bridges – the LIRR bridges DB Cabin and Cabin M, the Borden Avenue Bridge, the Queens Midtown Expressway truss, and the Hunters Point Avenue Bridge. Dutch Kills, like all of Newtown Creek’s tributaries and the main channel itself, is lined with a toxic sediment referred to as “Black Mayonnaise.” This sediment is composed of coal tar, petroleum and refining byproducts, industrial waste of various provence and typology, as well as human excrement deposited by NYC’s open sewers.

At its northern terminus, Dutch Kills is across the street from a CUNY college and several charter schools serving high school and junior high school aged kids. One of the most significant build outs in recent real estate history is happening less than a quarter mile from that spot, along LIC’s Jackson Avenue in an area referred to as “Court Square.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Due to a non functioning railroad swing bridge at Dutch Kill’s junction with Newtown Creek’s main channel, there is absolutely zero maritime industrial activity along the tributary. The bulkheads along its reach generally date back about a century, to a massive “improvement” conducted around the time of the First World War which saw the marshes and swamps it fed drained and both the Sunnyside Yards and the Degnon Industrial Terminal constructed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The streets surrounding Dutch Kills offer fleeting glimpses of the waterway, and many of them are not City streets at all but “railroad access roads” owned by the MTA. You can almost always smell the waterway before you can see it, and whereas I can tell you a few spots to access the water, none of these are “legal” and all involve trespass of private or government property. You can legally observe it from the Borden Avenue or Hunters Point Avenue bridges, however.

At it’s terminus – or “turning basin,” there are two abandoned oil barges rusting and rotting away into the water.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Illegal dumping, the native art form of the Borough of Queens, is practiced hereabouts with relish and abandon. The DSNY garbage bin in the shot above appeared on 29th street back in November, and I’ve been watching it steadily fill up and overflow. DSNY doesn’t seem to remember where they put it, as I haven’t seen it empty since the day it arrived.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Amidst the sheens of oil and grease you’ll observe on Dutch Kills, which are both historic and newly spawned, there are what the NYC DEP would describe as “floatables.” That’s government code for garbage that’s either been flushed or has been swept into the sewer grates on every street corner in NYC. In the case of Dutch Kills, the “sewer shed” that feeds these floatables into it extends all the way to East Elmhurst and Woodside to the east, Sunnyside and Astoria to the north, and the rapidly growing Long Island City which Dutch Kills is a part of.

The sewer plant that handles this burgeoning area was opened in 1931, and Fiorello LaGuardia cut the ribbon to open it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There is going to be a meeting tomorrow, the latest of many, of the Newtown Creek Community Advisory Group (CAG) on the first of February. If the shot above looks good to you, and you’d like to see more of the same – don’t come. If you care about not having a billion and a half gallons of raw sewage a year spilling onto mounds of poisonous and century old industrial waste, do come. Pipe up, we need voices and perspectives from outside the echo chamber.

Details on the meeting – time, place, etc. – can be accessed at this link. We could really use some Queensican bodies and voices in the room.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As evinced by the corpse pictured above, life has actually begun to recolonize this waterway in recent years. The presence of higher mammals hereabouts speaks to an ecosystem that is beginning to recover from centuries of industrial and municipal abuse. Of course, nothing is going to save a raccoon from getting ground into hamburger by the wheels of a semi truck.

At Newtown Creek Alliance, we’ve been cataloging and observing for a while now. There’s more than seventy individual species of birds for instance – including Great Blue Herons and Ospreys – living along the lugubrious Newtown Creek. Their presence speaks to a growing population of prey animals (fish) present in the water column, and to a broader environmental recovery happening along this industrial waterway at the literal center of NYC.


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heavy boots

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Yeah, Happy Earth Day.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Another Earth Day rolls around, wherein large numbers of happy little sophists will gather together in Manhattan Parks and congratulate themselves for separating their trash into “recycling” and “garbage” parcels. They will pat each other on the back, and claim that NYC is the “greenest” and most “resilient” of American cities. You won’t see any of them visiting LIC, or Greenpoint, Maspeth, or Bushwick, or Ridgewood. They won’t think about what happens after they flush their toilets, either.

Few, if any, will find themselves having arrived at the Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

They won’t see the black waters of Newtown Creek’s tributary Maspeth Creek, or smell the battery acid odor of raw sewage as it is entering the waterway. They won’t comment on the illegal dumping, or the true nature and environmental impact of the recycling industry. Greater good, they would say, were they to leave Manhattan.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Few will visit Dutch Kills at low tide, over in LIC. If they did, they would be forced to rationalize the rotten egg smell as being produced by anaerobic microbes. They wouldn’t puzzle over the neon colors of this tributary of Newtown Creek, whose mouth is .75 of a mile from the East River.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

They won’t wander through the borderlands of Brooklyn and Queens to Ridgewood, and witness what the recycling process actually looks and smells like. They won’t worry about what they are breathing either.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Manhattan people like to feel as if they’re doing something to help the environment, and will do so in front of television cameras. They will make a show of discussing the banning of plastic grocery bags, or demand that NYC begins to compost its organics. They won’t realize that this composting has to be done somewhere within throwing distance of their Borough, and that it will carried by truck to some central receiving facility where it will be collected and stored whilst awaiting processing. They don’t know that this area will be somewhere along the Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

They certainly won’t visit the tracks of the LIRR’s Bushwick Branch line, and see the hundreds of filled cargo boxes that compose the “garbage train.” They won’t care that the concentrating point of roughly 30-40% of NYC’s garbage is found on the corner of Varick Street and Johnson Avenue, nor about the thousands of trucks which descend upon it daily.

So – Happy Earth Day, from Newtown Creek.

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Upcoming Tours –

May 3, 2015 –
DUBPO, Down Under the Pulaski Bridge Onramp
with Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman, a free tour offered as part of Janeswalk 2015, click here for tickets.

May 31, 2015 –
Newtown Creek Boat Tour
with Working Harbor Committee and Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman, click here for tickets.

sorry planet

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Something else that’s kind of odd.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dutch Kills is currently a giant block of toxic ice, and I think the EPA is missing a big opportunity to just lift the water up and scrape away the black mayonnaise while the getting is good. That’s just a crazy idea, not the odd thing, however. This shot is looking south towards the estimable Long Island Expressway truss bridge over Dutch Kills, with the infinity of Brooklyn found just beyond the lugubrious Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking in the opposite direction, towards the Dutch Kills turning basin and the Degnon Terminal. This is a familiar view, of course, and one of my favorite points of view along the entire Newtown Creek. As you can see, there was a fresh layer of snow recently deposited. That’s where the odd thing comes in.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Tracks were observed in the fresh snow, some of which were easy to classify. These were clearly left by a web footed bird, likely a Canada Goose due to their size and indication of gait. Also could have been a large gull. That’s still not the odd part.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

These tracks in the snow covering Dutch Kills, this is what was odd. Some of these repeating shapes can easily be chalked up to garbage rolling along the surface of the snow, driven about by the cold wind. As a fairly obvious note, I shot these differently than the photos at the top of the post, intentionally under exposing them and desaturating the color so as to capture the detail and render the textures of the snow.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I can explain away most of these oddly mechanical looking impressions in the snow. That curving series of parallels – that’s a shoebox sized box. One cannot, however, reconcile the series of circular impressions. The circular impressions – that’s what was really odd. Also, it was odd that I was out at all as it was something like ten degrees Fahrenheit outside.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

February 26, 2015 at 11:00 am

everywhere present

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I also hate Tuesdays.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Recently one visited the Hunters Point Avenue Bridge, which spans the Dutch Kills tributary of Newtown Creek in Long Island City’s Degnon Terminal. It was low tide. The smell was abominable.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The tidal evacuation of the liquid during an unusually low winter tide – and we will just refer to that hellish chemical compound which sloshes about and between the shattered bulkheads of Dutch Kills as “water” – had revealed the hateful ooze and depraved sediments which underlie and poison the canal.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Gaze into the Black Mayonnaise, lords and ladies of Newtown. An amalgamation of centuries of sewage and oil and industrial pollution, as concentrated into a hard jelly that extends from twenty to thirty feet down from the surface. The wind was rather still, this day that the sediment mounds rose, and Dutch Kills exuded its peculiar flavor profile.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The smell back here isn’t necessarily that of sewage, which has a distinctive and quite unique odor,  this scent is also biological. The ambient aroma is that of sewage that’s been allowed to simmer, that is. These sediment mounds are teeming with armies of mephitic entities – most of whom could be politely described as “pathogens” – and when the “water” pulls out, they all fart at once and it smells not unlike rotting egg salad sandwiches.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The odor is best described as a flavor, as it activates a region far back on the tongue in addition to the nasal passage, which autonomically causes the abdomen to tighten up as well as causing vocalizations of some sort. The vocalizations are either profane or invoke the name of a god. To one such as myself, it is nepenthe, of course.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This century old point of view, of the former Loose Wiles Bakery at the Degnon Terminal in Long Island City, is about to be inextricably altered. A multi million dollar upgrade to the building, which serves as the modern day “Building C” of LaGuardia Community College, will be wiping away the intricate but crumbling plaster facade which has been so long familiar.

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brief space

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An interesting effect observed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

By this stage of the game, lords and ladies, the shot above must depict a scene quite familiar to your eyes. The waterway is the Dutch Kills tributary of the fabled Newtown Creek, and the industrial buildings framing it part of the Degnon Terminal here in Long Island City, Queens. The water is frozen, as would be expected in this frigid month.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Hanging around with the Newtown Creek Alliance folks, one of the terms I’ve learned which cannot be expunged from active memory is “sediment mound.” That’s when an open sewer deposits layer after layer of its cargo, over the course of decades, and piles up a mound. These mounds are normally indistinct to the eye, sitting hidden in the turbid water.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

What’s interesting in these shots, to me at least, is that the sediment mounds and other features of the bed which Dutch Kills flows through, are visible in the melting edges of the ice. It appeared that the ice didn’t form as solidly at the shorelines as it did in the center of the water. The center was, in fact, a solid plate of ice which had garbage rolling around on it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

These were captured on January the 11th, a very foggy day. The shot above is a stitched panorama, which depicts the entire water way while facing roughly southwards.

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The 2013 Spring and Summer Tours Schedule

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“follow” me on Twitter at @newtownpentacle

Pana_NCA_CreekEDU_Boat_102311_013359_a

– photo by Mai Armstrong

Want to see something cool?

Odds are that a bunch of the folks who will be reading this might have no idea who Mitch Waxman is, why they should come along with him on a tour of some weird neighborhood in Brooklyn or Queens or Staten Island, nor what a Newtown Creek or Kill Van Kull are- let alone where. Who is this weirdo?

Check out the “bio” page here at Newtown Pentacle, or this profile of me from the NY Times published in 2012. My tours of Newtown Creek have garnered no small amount of interest from the fourth estate- whether it be DNAInfountappedcities.com, Queens Chroniclenewyorkview.net, the 22blog, photobycateblog.com, or Queensnyc, and I’ve turned up in a bunch of media reports, documentaries, and been interviewed for multitudinous reports on the lamentable history of the Newtown Creek.

Most recently, it was National Geographic and Curbed. Attendees on my tours come from a variety of backgrounds- photographers, history and rail buffs, maritime enthusiasts, and there always seems to be an odd and welcome concentration of elected officials and journalists about.

What is with this guy?

I’m the Newtown Creek Alliance Historian, Official Photographer and Steering Committee member of the Working Harbor Committee, a member of the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee and the Newtown Creek CAG, and am also a member of the Kosciuszko Bridge Stakeholders Advisory Committee. Newtown Pentacle, this blog, has been steadily published since 2009. I live in Astoria, Queens with my wife and our little dog, Zuzu.

In just the last few years, I have exposed thousands of people to the Newtown Creek, and its incredible history. This is where the industrial revolution actually happened, along this 3.8 mile long waterway that defines the border of Brooklyn and Queens.

t3_Atlas_PoisonCauldron_082512_012520_a

– photo by Mai Armstrong

In 2013, continuing relationships with Atlas Obscura, Newtown Creek Alliance, and the Working Harbor Committee (as well as friends like the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, and others) allow me to offer the following schedule. Live ticketing links will be made available as they come online, and all dates are subject to cancellation or rescheduling due to weather or unforeseen circumstance. There are 6 unique walking tours listed here, and one boat trip in which I will be the principal speaker.

Private tours are possible, schedule permitting, and can be arranged by contacting me here. Last year, for instance, several private University classes engaged me for a day at the Creek, as did a few private groups. As mentioned, contact me and we will figure something out if you’ve got a meetup group, college class, or special request.

Here then, is my official schedule as it stands right now. There will likely be a few additions as time goes on, which I will let you know about as they occur. Best to subscribe to this blog (top right, email subscription)  or “follow” me on Twitter @newtownpentacle for news.

In April, 2013- There will be a brand new tour  of Greenpoint debuted, which I call “Glittering Realms.”

Glittering Realms Saturday, April 20, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets now on sale.

In May, 2013- We start off with 13 Steps around Dutch Kills, go to the Insalubrious Valley, visit DUKBO, and finish off the month with a Working Harbor boat tour.

13 Steps around Dutch Kills Saturday, May 4, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets now on sale.

Parks and Petroleum- Sunday, May 12, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Newtown Creek Alliance, tickets on sale soon.

The Insalubrious Valley- Saturday, May 25, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets on sale soon.

Hidden Harbor: Newtown Creek tour with Mitch Waxman – Sunday, May 26,2013
Boat tour presented by the Working Harbor Committee,
Limited seating available, order advance tickets now. Group rates available.

NCA Birdwatch Bus tour- June 24, 2012

– photo by Mai Armstrong

In June, 2013- We visit the Poison Cauldron, return to the Insalubrious Valley, and check out the Kill Van Kull.

The Poison Cauldron- Saturday, June 15, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets on sale soon.

Kill Van Kull- Saturday, June 22, 2013
Staten Island walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Working Harbor Committee, tickets on sale soon.

The Insalubrious Valley- Saturday, June 29, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Newtown Creek Alliance, tickets on sale soon.

In July, 2013- We visit Queens’s Hunters Point with a brand new tour. I might have another offering or two for you, but nothing I can speak about quite yet.

Modern Corridor- Saturday, July 13, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets on sale soon.

t3_MWA_COWD_071412_012314_a

– photo by Mai Armstrong

In August, 2013- We return to the Poison Cauldron, repeat the 13 steps, and the Kill Van Kull walks.

Kill Van Kull- Saturday, August 10, 2013
Staten Island walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Working Harbor Committee, tickets on sale soon.

13 Steps around Dutch Kills- Saturday, August 17, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Newtown Creek Alliance, tickets on sale soon.

The Poison Cauldron- Saturday, August 24, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets on sale soon.

There are a few other dates coming in the fall, and a couple of more summer events which are still being discussed, but I’ll let you know more about them in coming posts.

Also, I will definitely be onboard but not on the microphone during the Working Harbor Committee “Beyond Sandy” Hidden Harbor tours on Tuesday nights, all summer. Hope you can come along.

Click here for more on “Beyond Sandy.”

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