Neighborhood Watch

Dec 28, 2010 at 6am
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Intro

most infamous intersections and one of its least understood. People from all walks of life cross paths here, but most don’t intermingle. The neighborhood is mostly known for its gritty liquor stores, strip clubs, and SROs, but the landscape is changing dramatically with pioneering restaurants, cutting edge galleries, and revitilization efforts taking hold. On Saturday, June 5th, to get a better sense of what the intersection is really like, locals from The Bold Italic decided to stay a while – for 24 hours in fact. They captured their experiences on video and in the vignettes below.

Thank you to our partnering contributors: Spot.Us, SF Public Press, Caliber SF, and KALW.

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I have seen knife fights before. I have never seen one before breakfast.

It is 5:55 a.m. when I arrive at the Rite-By Grocery. The store isn't open. I pass the time with Patches and David the Lion King, two homeless men, lovers, and longtime friends. David tells me he once stabbed a guy seven times and only went to jail for a week. They offer me a bit of their vodka and I accept. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday morning.

The store opens and Ahmed, the shop owner, states that he is too busy to talk. "I need to watch for shoplifters." I buy a banana and he offers me a free cup of coffee.

Every half hour a cop car cruises by, but never stops. The sun is up but hasn't broken through the clouds as a small crowd barrels up 6th. A woman and an older drunk man dance back and forth, their fists up. The drunk takes a swing. The woman snaps back to avoid the blow while unzipping her sweatshirt, dropping it to the ground, and hits back twice. “Five-oh,” her friends plainly state as the squad car rolls by. The woman turns and walks.

Before the police are around the corner a large male steps out from the crowd. “Come on, come on,” he repeats, shuffling toward the older drunk, who instantly pulls out a

knife. I could reach out and touch his back. He swings the blade. Swings again. The crowd dissipates, leaving him standing there holding his weapon. The woman, now down the block, shouts out that she's going to screw him with her strap-on, which she calls "Billy Bob Thornton." The man says “coward” to no one in particular and pulls the knife back into the sleeve of his jacket. He turns the corner onto Market and is gone. 

Ahmed locked his gate when the trouble started. As he reopens I ask him, "See this a lot?" "Sometimes yes. Sometimes no," he replies. His face is calm. His smile small.

Listen-here

Listen to Sam Harnett's report on 6th Street liquor stores.
This segment aired on KALW News' Crosscurrents on June 10th.

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The fog begins to rise off 6th and Mission as amorphous masses of old sleeping bags and packing blankets begin to shift about. The homeless sleep in clusters, clinging to the north side of the street. One by one the security gates of the area's shops slide open, causing a stir among the waking people. Some leave while others slouch off to some yet unopened gate. Shopkeepers stand in front of their businesses in a silent territorial challenge.    

Even the pigeons look hungover on this block – feathers ruffled, eyes red. Twenty-two ounce cans of King Cobra and Colt 45 tucked into crumpled paper bags have replaced coffee as the eye-opening drink here. The Guardian Angels march down the south side of the street – 20 of them, flexing in matching red berets. They don't even exchange glances with the homeless on the north side.

Paul woke up hungry and homeless this morning. He's looking for some spare change to get some food. “I've been down here a long time. Seven years one time, ten years another. It's gotten a little less violent. It was a hell of a lot more violent about five years ago.” He says he has seen some improvements in the neighborhood, with dilapidated buildings being renovated, and businesses and restaurants coming into the area. Paul says the people are the best part of the neighborhood. “There are so many people here. It's really diverse.” 

Smoking and carrying some quarters in his hand, Jason, a 14-year resident of the area, approaches me for money or a cigarette. “There is no help out here that can change anything. You have to change yourself,” he says, going on to tell me he had bought a radio from one of the neighborhood pawnshops, then turned around and sold it for some money to make it through the day. “I see a lot of desperation down here.” 

Ten minutes later, as if by magic, all of the homeless get up and leave. A stray cart and a few abandoned blankets are the only evidence of their night here.

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Police Officer Julio Bandoni tells me there’s more action on the streets at 4 p.m. when more people are drinking, or at the end of month, when checks run out and hotels are empty. But he introduces me to a number of the local characters – some regulars whom he knows by name, and others passing through, whom he eyes more suspiciously. He knows the kind of trouble they get up to – turning tricks, smoking crack, making deals – and when he sees it go down, he takes notes in his little black book. 

He subtly lets them know that he knows what’s up, and he issues more warnings than tickets. We tour the halls of an SRO warrant-free and check in with locals who sometimes have tips about crimes. Mainly, we talk to people hanging out in alleys and sidewalks who have nowhere else to go, sometimes asking them to move on, pack up their cardboard, and stop drinking in public. Since the 6th and Market foot patrol was established two years ago, things have improved significantly. Before it took an hour to clear Stevenson Alley – today, just 15 minutes. 

People criticize the cops for criminalizing homelessness. But the way Bandoni sees it, he’s preventing crimes from happening, and mostly looking out for these people. He takes a plastic vodka bottle from one cancer patient passed out on the sidewalk, and after unsuccessfully trying to convince her to go to a shelter where at least she won’t be robbed (or worse), he gets her to move around the corner into the shade. One guy, just ticketed for drinking, threatens Bandoni when asked again to move. Most act overly friendly toward Bandoni, though I get the sense it's in a "keep your enemies close" kind of way. 

When the punk rock chick with red garters, face tattoos, and florescent hair (who he later tells me does it all from smoking crack to "whoring") gives him a huge hug, he tells her he is happy she is doing better, but they both know the deal. I leave at noon, and he warns me not to go back there after 4 p.m. – now that people have seen me hanging out with him, I might not be safe. 

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It is the warmest part of Saturday afternoon. I am sitting outside of Showdogs at the corner of 6th and Market. The sun is bright and the fog is still trapped out in the avenues. I have a beer, a fancy truffle chicken dog, and a basket of handmade onion rings. Obviously, I’m smiling. 

Sitting outside of Showdogs on this tarnished, seedy intersection is like having front row seats to the best people-watching in the world. I’m catching a little bit of everything: junkies, winos, tourists, wealthy shoppers, punkers, gangsters, trannies, teenagers, hipsters, and hookers. 

Gayle, one of the owners of Showdogs, comes out and sits beside me. She regales me with tales of the neighborhood's history. I sip my beer. Next to us a car with 24-inch rims sails through a red light, sending oncoming traffic screeching in all directions. The constant tide of humanity gets me thinking about those nature shows and the way their environments are detailed. 

In my mind I hear a voice (David Attenborough, perhaps?) describing the tarnished 1920s architecture of the buildings across the street, or dissecting the meaning of the crazy religious guy's handmade sign. As if to emphasize this point, Gayle motions to the scene all around us. "We're in the heart of the city here," she says. "Why would you want to be anywhere else?" 

Soon she leaves me to my lunch and I sit back to let the street entertain me. I watch a group of wheelchair-bound drunks play the dozens. I see at least 50 motorcycle cops swarm the intersection as an anti-Israel protest makes a slow march up Market. Soccer moms, German tourists in matching tracksuits, and scantily clad streetwalkers all drift through the noise and the sunshine. It is strange, beautiful, and sometimes disturbing. Just like the street itself. 

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Fashion designer Jarred Garza gets frustrated when people complain that his Archetype Boutique, located next to The Warfield, is gentrifying the neighborhood. “I don’t see any of them investing in this area,” he says with a frown. “ We’re the ones taking risks.” And although he could do without the woman who regularly swings by to spit on his floor, he’s deeply connected to his location. Jarred calls this the heart of the theater district, and the unconventional clothing and jewelry he sells by emerging designers caters to the nearby opera, drag, and music scenes.

Jarred shows me the rainbow skirt a member of Massive Attack wore to a recent Warfield performance. As he returns it to the rack, a teenager arrives raving about a backless jumper she wants for the BET Awards. She usually doesn’t shop west of Nordstrom. When she asks if the homeless men outside are sleeping or dead, Jarred educates her on the failings of the nearby SROs.

I leave Jarred and cross Market Street to the Luggage Store, where I've always felt an immediate connection to the San Francisco street-art scene. Gallery director Darryl Smith is posted by the door wearing gray Converse. When Mission-born George Crampton swings by to price his Muni-themed paintings, Darryl introduces us. "I love Muni because you can get on a bus with no destination in mind," the 20-year-old artist tells me. It's fitting, hearing city buses described poetically at a gallery that encourages viewing urban living artistically.

Darryl tells me he's always loved the Tenderloin. His dad was a cop here, and this neighborhood was the favorite of his father's beats. He's comfortable hanging with a variety of characters – especially, it seems, the fringe dwellers. As we chat, an eclectic downtown demographic strolls through the gallery. The abstract expressionism exhibit draws an older art critic who likes only one painting, while the pop-culture-saturated Zineblasters exhibit attracts a woman from a nearby SRO carrying a mop. She says she needs to create art again. Darryl gives her his card and tells her to get in touch, as if he's already seen her portfolio.

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Walking down 6th Street on a warm afternoon, I'm having a difficult time ignoring the pungent smell of urine. Titus Tolliver and Rene Greenwood surely notice it, too, but that's the least of their worries as they head down an alley to check on a man who's lying down on the sidewalk. Titus and Rene are Sixth Street Community Guides and it's their job to make sure the guy on the ground wants to be there. If not, they'll help him get the food, shelter, or medical attention that he needs. 

There are two types of Community Guides – the ones who patrol Central Market (on Market between 5th and 9th) in brown jackets and the ones in blue who are dedicated to 6th Street. They patrol the area Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Titus and Rene are meeting with me on a day off, and I discover there is plenty more selflessness where that came from.

Community Guide duties include things like picking up used needles, dealing with illegal vendors, checking in with merchants, and giving tourists directions, but their main gig is assisting the homeless who populate the area. While the rest of the city wouldn't dare ask a tooth-challenged tranny how her day is going or make sure the old man curled up on a turned-over trash bin really is just sleeping, these guys have joined a family that typically consists of other homeless people. "If I build trust with them, that's when they feel they can tell me things, and I can try to help them out," says Titus.

We discover that the man in the alley is content just sitting in the sun, but not before a local character named Spaceman, wearing a bicycle helmet, blowing a whistle, and pulling a shopping cart and wheelchair, accuses us of stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. I try to detect disappointment on Titus' face, but he's already moved on, ready to help the next guy in the next alley.

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When I arrive at her apartment with a Spanish speaking translator, Maria is a little nervous. Truthfully, so am I. She has sent her husband out to walk their Chihuahua with two of her three children; her middle son, Juan – who suffers from severe autism – is in a special class for the day. The family’s two rooms are small and neat. She likes the apartment better than their last one, which was in the Tenderloin and had a balcony. When Juan had his self-destructive anxious spells, he would often try to jump. 

Living at 6th and Mission has been mixed at best for Maria. “I avoid 6th Street,” she tells us, even though it means going two blocks out of her way with three little ones in tow. She also almost never leaves her house after dark. Aside from getting the kids to and from school, one of her only destinations is a small park four blocks away.  

The area needs a real grocery store (one that takes WIC coupons) she tells us, more schools and daycares, and more job programs for neighborhood youth. She could do with less adult video stores, and a lot fewer condoms and needles on the sidewalks. “I’d like to see this become more of a family zone,” she says. And it’s not that she wants to see more families; they’re already here. Most, like Maria’s, are just barely visible. 

On the bright side, there are people in SOMA working to change this fact. Maria gets a lot of support from the SOMA Family Resource Center and she’s doing some advocacy work through the South of Market Community Action Network; at the moment that means explaining the renter-friendly Proposition F to her neighbors.  

Maria’s face lights up when she tells us about her art projects. (In Mexico, she made fruit bowls out of popsicle sticks she would find on the street.) She says she misses a nearby store called La Perla, and at first it’s a name I don’t recognize. Then I realize she’s talking about the old Pearl’s on Market – a place that I too used to love. For a minute I’m reminded of the countless lunch breaks I spent wandering the three-story multi-aisle store, and Maria flashes me a quick smile of recognition.  

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Number 117A is a storefront with whitewashed windows in The Rose Hotel building. Before it was legal, SF AIDS Foundation volunteers walked this neighborhood swapping syringes from baby buggies. Now they run exchanges, mostly mobile, reaching an estimated 75% of the city's 16,000 IV drug users. Staffer Chip Suparich shows me around. It's a small room and with today's heat it's too bad that someone in a long-forgotten moment of whimsy replaced the ceiling fan with a small disco ball. 

Like all volunteers, I start by observing. There's a lot of lingo, so the first 20 minutes pass investigating the boots I’m advised to wear in case a needle drops. People walk in, head to the large red bin marked for used syringes, and drop them in. A volunteer asks what points (needle size) they want and how many. Chip explains you can gauge where people are with their addiction by the size: smaller needles, smaller veins. When those give out, you need larger needles to hit larger veins. People come for more than just clean needles: there are three tables loaded up with safe injection supplies including cookers, cotton, tourniquets, condoms, lube, and alcohol pads.

Then regulars trickle in, banter flows easily, and needle-access newbiedom becomes less daunting. Veteran volunteer Nina compliments a woman in hot pink on her shirt, tells a man with a bandaged hand she'd hate to see the other guy, and quickly drops supplies into paper bags. Then, with a bright smile, she offers food and water. An emaciated elderly woman shakes my hand and calls me darling on the way out. A tan, muscular guy comes in with a racing bike. A chatterbox in ripped tights stays for 40 minutes confirming that crystal meth is bad business. There are more men than women, about 70/30, and typical for the afternoon hours, more folks over 50 than under. Users of crack, speed, coke, and heroin. 

Two hours later, we've handed out about 3,800 needles, traded a few wisecracks, and exchanged the odd hug.

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Sixth and Market at rush hour is a force to be reckoned with. I used to live near here and felt well acquainted with the deafening hum of the cars at 5 p.m. But that was before new traffic rules went into effect, cutting back 200 vehicles per hour – just one of the new projects aimed at making this neighborhood less deafening, less voracious, and maybe even… friendly?

I meet up with Kit Hodge from the SF Great Streets Project. Kit is working to make public spaces more enjoyable and functional for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers alike. At the heart of the city, 6th and Market at 5:17 p.m. is, of course, well populated – but as Kit points out to me, "You'll notice one thing they're not doing is stopping." That's an understatement. The sidewalks are packed, but people pass through quickly, heads down, avoiding eye contact.

So how do you get tourists, SRO residents, and Warfield condo dwellers to hang out together? The city thinks the answer is art. The SF Arts Commission's Art in Storefronts campaign hit mid-Market last year in an attempt to "activate the public space." When I get to Chor Boogie's massive mural that largely obscures the boarded-up Hollywood Billiards building, I can't help but slow down – and I'm not alone. A couple walking nearby nod approvingly; a man lugging a big duffel bag does a full stop to turn and study the thing like it's on the wall of SFMOMA.

Some of the positive changes here don't make for the best pedestrian experience, though. Kit and I are continually interrupted by a deafening high-speed sidewalk sweeper that I guess I'd choose over mid-Market refuse, though it's a close call. Mostly I'm just left wanting a return of the seating the city tore out years ago to discourage overnight sleeping. A place to sit while I finish jotting down these notes, watching all the newly comfortable cyclists go by? That would be pretty great.

Editor’s Note: Susie Cagle went to 6th & Market on June 9th

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At 4th Street, I hear the sirens. At 5th, the dynamite exploding in the street. By the time I reach 6th and Market, I can see the action: 1,200 Juggalos, the painted-face fans of the Insane Clown Posse (ICP). They are surrounded by a handful of police, The Warfield’s goliath security officers, nervous tourists, and in the middle of it all, a 70-year-old woman collecting empty bottles from the fans.

Outside, the SFPD and security officers are trying to contain the crowd. Inside, the staff is preparing for their own chaos. Every surface of the theater is covered in Dexter-strength plastic in anticipation of the gallons of Faygo soda that will be sprayed by both fans and performers during the show. It’s triple thick this year; the mistake was made of using single plastic last year. “The inside is as close to a condom as we can get,” says The Warfield’s house manager, who is still in disbelief that the band was allowed back for another year.

At 6:15, the Juggalos begin to chant, “Let us in… please!” The polite request seems oddly juxtaposed to their actions, which include one Juggalo selling half-sticks of dynamite, another writhing on the ground in an apparent drug overdose, and a teenage fan being dragged away in handcuffs. A group of guys give the finger to the white-coated scientists from Noisebridge, who hold signs explaining how “fucking magnets work” – a response to the ICP’s song about the “miracle” of rainbows, fire, and solar eclipses.

Perhaps even more shocking than the polite chant is the fact that the ICP concert is a real family event – clown-faced kindergartners rock back and forth between their parents’ legs and brothers give each other head noogies in line, all under the cacophony of shattered glass and explosions. The doors of The Warfield finally open and the Juggalos pour into the deco theater, leaving behind a layer of filth that gets quickly swept up by The Warfield staff. Twenty minutes later, the street returns to its original state as if the last hour never happened. 

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On my way to get something to eat on 6th Street I witness a few sketchy scenes (including a narrowly diffused knife fight) involving a few unsavory characters that might kill the appetite of those with a weaker stomach. Undeterred, I continue to my first destination, a marker of the new movement to revitalize the neighborhood and make it a destination for adventurous foodies – San Francisco's grittier answer to Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto. 

Passion Cafe is a French bistro with rooftop dining. I talk to one of the owners, Steve, who says that thus far, it is a great experience running a restaurant on 6th Street; people are respectful and positive, and the restaurant is getting great reviews. I sit down and open a menu to see what the fuss is about. Turns out the hype is to be believed: The boeuf bourguignon reminds me of autumn in Paris, if I'd ever been. The outdoor dining area on the roof takes advantage of the relatively mild microclimate of the area, and my table has a view of the street below, where I see groups of face-painted Juggalos hooting as they head toward the Insane Clown Posse show at The Warfield. Try finding that kind of ambiance on La Rive Gauche!  

Also new to 6th Street is John's Burgers. You won't find John's on Yelp, but inside you will find a tasty hamburger, fries, and a Coke for under six bucks. I enter in the aftermath of a minor dispute. Chicken bones and napkins lay scattered on the floor. According to the guy at the register, a man had come in with outside food, refused to leave, and made a scene. Although this is only his second day of work, the register guy tells me that incidents like this are far from the norm. He says that most people who come in are cool. As long as they don't cause problems, he lets them sit. He turns to take the next customer's order. My type of lady – she knows what she wants and she knows just how to get it: “Gimme extra mayonnaise, extra ketchup,” she barks. “I don't want no damn onions, and no pickles!” 

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Walking into Market Street Cinema and identifying yourself as a reporter is like going to a police sting and wearing your wire on the outside. It's a dumb move. The dancers are keeping their distance as if I'm the Shit Demon from Dogma

At 10 p.m. this place might as well be a church, albeit one with fully nude nuns. Even the group of Hells Angels who roll up on their choppers are chill. “The later it gets, the better it gets,” one worker says. By midnight though, there isn’t much more action. The Hells Angels hang out near the juice bar, with two sets of friends occupying the front row. I’m told the main crowd blows in after the bars and clubs shut down at 2 a.m., but even so, it’s been slow for the last month.  

The women on the shift are all natural, girl-next-door-in-skimpy-lingerie types, except for one plastic Barbie doll. As a journalist, it’s only right I get the full customer experience, so I ask one of my new buddies to recommend a girl for a lap dance. He sends over a petite Filipina who works my crotch like she’s trying to grind my balls into dust. I don’t think my 13-year-old hand discovering the joys of masturbation ever gripped my weenie as tight as her butt cheeks are clamping down right now. It’s $100 for a private room though. Fuck. That. 

A customer fresh from prison tries to pay the $25 entry with a credit card; his only ID is a prison wristband with his name on it. He’s denied admission for not having a photo ID. “If he causes trouble, they’re going to ask who let him in. But we also have to be cool to everyone,” one floor man says. “These are the adventures here.” Maybe I'm here too early, but this strip club is far from what they’re like in the movies. Reeking of the stripper's coconut-scented lotion, I head for the exit.  

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The experience of turning off gritty mid-Market onto sketchy 6th Street at midnight on a Saturday is akin to jumping from the trenches and into the line of fire. Confronted by panhandlers, addicts, and that pesky stench of vomit – markings left behind by drunk Juggalos after the Insane Clown Posse show at The Warfield – I know my only solace in this notorious “containment zone” will be found inside of a bar. 

I duck into modern lounge Anu, where b-boys and girls are grooving merrily to dubstep on the dance floor. The bouncer, Peijman, admits that the energy shifts just outside the door where he’s witnessed plenty of fights and gunfire. On the brighter side, there’s some interesting street singing and rapping that goes on. I meet one of these rappers across the street in front of Showdown. Alex may be in black-and-white face, but he isn’t just a Juggalo; this wheelchair-bound rapper tosses rhymes around like a pro. When it comes time for this local to deliver his verdict on 6th Street, he calls area residents “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” and speaks candidly about a shooting he witnessed just two days before.  

It’s this darker element – the violence against women, the recent rise in teenage prostitution since summer break, and the flagrant dealing – that Frank, Showdown’s security chief, says he’s trying to keep out of the bar, which hosts more than 20 mostly hip-hop hipster parties a month. I can’t begin to understand why anyone would want to set up shop here until Showdown's owner, Johnny, explains that only in this kind of urban setting can he realize his vision of a “cool spot for local DJs without a snooty dress code.” Leaving Showdown at 2 a.m., I pass speeders looking for a fix, drunks looking for fights, and schizophrenics who hear voices that don’t like me. I wish I could have stayed inside of the bars just a little while longer. 

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Single Room Occupancy hotels rent by the day, week, or month, although guests often stick around permanently. Sixth Street is lousy with them, and the mangers all wave me away when I inquire about lodging for a single night, preferring to let their rooms to city-approved monthly tenants. “One night?” they say. “No vacancy.” My last stop is the Haveli Hotel. A tired-looking manager behind Plexiglas is placating a disheveled man, promising him a new room in a better state of repair. This is a bad sign: a guy whom I suspect is homeless complaining that his room is too filthy. 

The manager agrees to give me a room just for the night. It is absolutely disgusting. A mismatched set of sheets is left unmade atop a stained mattress, obviously just slept in. It carries the unmistakable odor of long-term human habitation. I always conduct “dead hooker checks” in hotels. Underneath the bed is my main concern. Luckily, I find only an empty bag of Cheetos and dust balls as big as tumbleweeds. Despite the absence of a body, my first impression is borne out: cigarette butts dot the carpeting; a can of olives sits open on the dresser; organic-looking stains foul the walls; the sink reeks of urine; a well-thumbed Christian pamphlet asks, Where did you come from? Why must you die?  

Repulsed, I wander outside to survey the “cracktivity.” Done-up club girls pass by a wheelchair-bound man draining his catheter bag. A guy picks through the trash as a voice booms from the SRO intercom telling him to stay out. He tells the voice to put a motherfucking lock on it. I’m given a boxing lesson and shown a secret handshake in exchange for a quarter. I drink bourbon next to a man I swear is Andre Nickatina. Around 3 a.m. I return to the Haveli. I go upstairs to sit on the wobbly end table, not willing to touch the bed. I wake hours later because of a sharp pain in my back. I leave my key on a shelf and walk out to Mission Street, where I wait for the 14 bus to take me home.

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