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Bitter Harvest

Ideological clashes threaten a celebrated Cabrini-Green gardening project



The Cabrini-Green residents peering from their windows back in 1991 were suspicious. Outside, in a vacant lot surrounded by high-rises, a white man in khakis was scratching around in the dirt. He was slightly overweight, appeared to be in his early 40s, and had two little black kids hanging on his legs.

A Park District plow had come by earlier that spring and turned up the soil, transforming the scrubby, litter-strewn plot into a field. Every couple of steps or so, the white guy would bend down and plant something. Residents who passed by stopped to watch. Some walked across the field and asked him what he was up to.

As the days and weeks passed, more and more children flocked to the man, some regularly, some sporadically. But a bunch were always out there pulling weeds, straightening plants, picking up garbage. And at the end of the week they would gather around him, impatiently waiting to be paid.

The man with the bankroll was Jack Davis, a middle-class accountant farm boy who'd taken it upon himself to teach these kids how to work for a buck through a program he called Cabrini Greens. His plan was to show them how to grow gourmet produce and to teach them how to sell to chefs at restaurants like Gordon and Charlie Trotter's. "I wanted these kids to acquire skills that would help them mainstream," Davis says.

But to their suspicious parents, he seemed like some pied piper, explains Thomas Murdock, a pastor at a storefront church in the housing project. "The parents figured this guy was something like a Dahmer or something."

Davis, an Apostolic Christian and staunch Republican who claims to despise something-for-nothing handouts, eventually proved he wasn't a degenerate, but he's had other problems over the past four years, some of them of his own making. To begin with, he just showed up one day four years ago, having had his plans OK'd by the CHA, and went to work without consulting the residents who sat on Cabrini's local advisory councils.

"What if I went into an Irish community and started being all the kids' Santa Claus?" asks Murdock, who posed this question to Davis when he first visited his church and asked for help in dealing with the kids. "They see Jack as another do-gooder white guy setting up his sign and starting up another white man's program. When you come into a community, wash yourself into a do-gooder, and say "I'm going to do something for you people,' you separate yourself from the people. And the people can't join you. They want to know, "What you want, Santa Claus?' Jack's still trying to build some social bridges over that."

"I want this to be black run," says Davis, adding that he always intended Cabrini Greens to be a self-sustaining entrepreneurial organization run by Cabrini residents. "And my job will be done when people don't need to call me to ask what to do next." But he admits that's still a ways off.

More tension was created when the media got wind of his program. Chicago's two main newspapers, the network news, and the National Enquirer all did glowing pieces on Davis and his little ghetto band--and Cabrini residents grew even more suspicious of his motives. But Davis claims he never invited the media to do stories on Cabrini Greens.

Davis--who fancies himself a visionary, believing that if conditions don't improve in impoverished black communities "we'll have a civil war in 10 to 15 years"--has an abrasive manner. And he didn't express much sympathy for the parents, believing they'd made conscious choices that hurt themselves and their children. "There are people who want to help the parents, but I'm not one," he says. "If your arm is cut off and you're bleeding to death because of your choice of activity, I can empathize. But so be it."

Davis may be hard on the adults, but he's soft on the kids. When they hit him up for a buck, he scowls and says, "I'm not your personal banker." But he gives in. "The children have not made a lot of the errors their parents have," he explains.

Davis points out that he's never taken a penny from the program. Instead, he's relentlessly pounded on doors, getting companies and organizations such as the Chicago White Sox Wives, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Troy-Bilt, Sparkling Spring, the American Institute of Wine and Food, Vitner Snack Foods, White Hen Pantry, and Burpee to donate money or goods. He's also recruited volunteers from local charitable organizations to help on weekends.

He admits his game plan wasn't well thought out at the beginning. After collecting the money and equipment he needed to start, he simply began gardening, telling the curious kids who approached him that they could get paid for working with him--the recruitment method he would use for the first three years. Word spread like wildfire, and sooner or later just about every kid at Cabrini would sign up. Kids worked, Davis recorded their hours, and at the end of the week he paid them out of funds from his corporate donors. But his helpers didn't much like the waiting-to-be-paid concept. And they often wanted to be paid for just standing around.

This didn't sit well with Davis, who prefaces many of his sentences with "I'm a conservative" and often says "I detest liberalism, which causes irresponsibility for what people do." He refused to pay the slackers, and early on a bunch of disgruntled kids took it out on his truck, breaking every window and denting the body by hurling rocks at it. They managed to do $1,700 worth of damage.

On some paydays the children would surround Davis, distract him, and then steal his money. They tore up some of the equipment. Some of them spit at him, cursed him, and threatened him. "Kids would say to me, "I'm gonna get my brother's gun and come down and shoot you.' I'd say, "Better hurry up, 'cause I'm leaving in 20 minutes.' I'd be as bold as they were. But there were some I didn't say that to because they would have done it."

There didn't seem to be a whole lot Davis could do, and at the end of three years he was just about ready to call it quits. That's when he asked for Murdock's help.

"Jack was working with undisciplined, one-parent-household, throw-kids-out-of-the-window kids," Murdock says. "And he had no sense of how to interact with them. When you're dealing with people down here who kill each other and shoot each other, a dollar in the hand is worth all them in the bush--because, hey, I could be gone tomorrow. And any suburban white guy down here is good pickin's. Kids figure, he's just down here for a little while. They seen his do-gooder kind before. So they beg him, threaten him, and get what they can while he's passing through."

But Murdock knew some well-disciplined children who would make a difference in the program if they, and their father, Dan Underwood, signed on. Through Underwood's children, Murdock went to work on Underwood, a 47-year-old longtime resident of Cabrini-Green who got involved with the civil rights movement in 1966, joining organizations like CORE, SNCC, and the Black Panthers. He's been a community organizer for former congressman Gus Savage and is an active member of Operation PUSH. At the time Murdock approached him he was selling balloons on street corners to make ends meet.

"Danny was a revolutionary," Murdock says. "He wasn't into hugging white people. But the program needed him. So I showed Jack Danny's kids and said, "If you get Danny's kids into the program, you get Danny--and he's a worker who'll volunteer from a visionary standpoint until the money comes in.' So Danny and his kids come into the program, and Jack is lifted in the clouds saying, "This is it! This is what we need!"'

Midway into the 1993 season Davis gave Underwood the job of gardening assistant. And Underwood, who still holds the position, became the authority figure the kids had to answer to. He hired, fired, and oversaw the children, while Davis managed the gardens and raised money. Underwood kicked the troublemakers and gangbangers out of Cabrini Greens, even though Davis petitioned to let them back in.

Toward the end of the summer things were starting to run smoothly. But then Murdock began to grouse that his contributions were no longer being recognized, primarily by the media, who were still entranced by the program. He was also incensed when he found out that, starting in 1994, Underwood would be paid $30,000 a year when he'd never seen a dime.

Murdock says he worked as a consultant with the program for two and a half years--Davis says it was a year and a half--and he felt he was entitled to $15,000 a year, half of Underwood's salary.

But Davis says Murdock's contribution was limited, that he was only carrying out his duties as a minister and was therefore entitled to nothing. "Tom and I worked together every Saturday morning for two hours. We brought kids to his church, and we'd sing songs, play games, and try to get to the kids at different angles. We paid the church $25 a week for rent--and now he wants this large, unreasonable amount of money. I offered Tom Dan's job several times, but he didn't want it. He didn't want to roll up his sleeves and work in the dirt. So why should I pay him for a church service? I have my limits. And I can be pretty abrasive in the way I vent that."

Davis, who's 43 and single, lives in a small basement room he rents in a house in Northfield. Yet he's the director of marketing at the Northbrook accounting firm Edwin C. Sigel. He says his austere lifestyle "is the reason I have a few bucks."

Davis was always a money-minded hard worker, his mother, Vonee, remembers. He was in the sixth grade when he began working with his father, an electrical contractor, in rural Lewistown, where he also learned to garden from a retired, poetry-reciting English teacher. Lewistown, which isn't far from Peoria, is where Davis hopes to build a Frank Lloyd Wright-style home for himself one day, though for now he's content to spend weekends with his parents in the same two-story, 115-year-old brick house he and his two younger sisters grew up in.

"He brings his laundry home and eats quite a bit," his mother says. "I save everything, because when he gets in the door he eats it. And he washes and polishes his truck and our car."

The first time Davis moved away from Lewistown was back in 1971, when he attended Illinois State University as an art major. He dropped out in 1973 because his art scared him. "I have a hunch I could have exhibited art in museums if I wanted to," he says matter-of-factly. "I'm not bragging. It's just the way it is. Anybody can learn to be a draftsman. But artists are born. I see designs in my head I've never seen before. But you look at art on the walls of the Art Institute and see abstract, strange things--and people had to think of those things. I got tired of that type of thinking while living in the real world. It's spooky."

He became an Apostolic Christian and two years later enrolled at Western Illinois University as a business major. "I'd rather be pragmatic. Most accountants go to work from nine to five, play golf, drink beer, have sex missionary style--and I'd rather relate to that." However, he doesn't seem to have time for such extracurricular activities.

For eight years he took care of his invalid aunt Ruby, leaving work every two or three hours to check up on her, until she moved into a convalescent home. "The Bible says if you're single you should help the aged, the infirm, and children," he says.

Davis, who set up his own financial-planning business in Lewistown, also started experimenting with growing gourmet herbs and vegetables, though he had few places to sell them. One night seven years ago he was standing in front of a restaurant in Chicago when a boy from Cabrini-Green offered to shine his shoes. Davis was impressed with the boy's ambition, and the wheels started turning. Chicago was full of yuppies, great restaurants, and disenfranchised children. Davis asked if there was open land at Cabrini, and the boy said yes.

A year later Davis was being wooed by Sam Oliba, a partner at Edwin C. Sigel, to be director of marketing. Oliba had met Davis while they were on the advisory committee to Western Illinois University's accounting department, which was losing its accreditation. He says Davis more or less saved it. "Jack single-handedly raised between $50,000 and $100,000 for the department, and that's why I wanted him."

It took Oliba a year to persuade Davis to take the job, and he finally agreed in part because it would let him set his Cabrini Greens dream in motion. But he never blended in well with the Sigel suits. "Jack's a workaholic who's gotten us several very nice clients," Oliba says. "But how he sells I don't know. Maybe it's just sheer perseverance and hard work, because to me he's a strange individual. Here it's mainly CPAs in suits who were frat boys. And Jack's just different--the way he looks, the way he talks, all that health food he eats. He doesn't drink, but even if he did the guys wouldn't ask him to go out for a beer after work. Jack starting out as an art major, now that fits. He's always trying to create something, some program, he can take credit for. He likes to see himself as someone who sees further than anyone else--and he goes about trying to prove it."

Davis says he doesn't work at generating ideas. His grand plans evolve in a lackadaisical fashion. "I don't really think about stuff," he says, sounding both pompous and humble. "I get involved with things, and answers pop into my head through life experience."

Dan Underwood remembers one of the first times he ever saw Davis: "Jack was out there when a couple gangs had a shoot-out. I was wondering where he gonna run to, 'cause he's not from here. So I went out looking for him, and he and some kids were laying under his truck. I thought, he's not coming back next year. He'd be crazy."

But he was back, rolling with the punches alone, until Underwood signed on as foreman in 1993. Soon after that Davis burned out. After the four garden plots were planted last year he vanished and left Underwood to manage everything from weed pulling to restaurant deliveries. Davis continued to handle the program's finances and talked to Underwood regularly, usually over the phone. But their physical separation only made it more apparent that they had different agendas.

"Jack says, "I want this to be a business. I don't want this to be a social program,"' Underwood says. "But I tell him, "No, this is a social program. And those two things don't go together."'

Davis says, "I get frustrated when we've got work to do and orders to get out and the social program takes over."

Like the time last summer that Underwood spent $3,500 chartering a bus to take the kids on a trip to Iowa, while back in Chicago the tomato vines were loaded with fruit. Or the argument over an end-of-the-season harvest party: Underwood wanted to throw the party to build community relations; Davis saw it as a ridiculous celebration given how minimal the production had been.

In the program's history produce sales had never been lower. In 1991 they amounted to about $800, and in 1992 they were approximately $900. In 1993 they went up to about $3,000. But in 1994, even though Underwood had handpicked a bunch of nice kids for the job, sales dropped to roughly $700.

Charlie Kubert, a marketing consultant and think-tank associate of Davis's who became involved with Cabrini Greens in 1993 after reading about it in Crain's Chicago Business, stayed away from the gardens last summer because he thought Underwood's agenda was taking over. "The goal of the program is to generate high-value crops and compete with the best of other suppliers--so that the social work would be indirect, and the kids could say, "Yeah, there is value here.' But Dan is treating it as social work rather than a business venture--and half of the kids in the program are his. This program needs to be run by a full-time community or professional organization with a gardening and marketing plan. And it needs a full-time program director running it according to the objectives.

"Jack's board of directors are basically all people who live in Cabrini, and he's never had a formal board of directors meeting. There has never been an official audit, except by Jack's accounting firm. And up until he handed the gardening work over to Dan, Jack was not a good delegator."

Kubert points out that in 1993, under Davis's watchful eye, a lot of gardening work got done--but it was done on Saturday mornings by Chicago Cares volunteers, which is why that year was so profitable. He says that last year, when the kids started working with Underwood, "Nothing got done." Kubert's afraid the same thing will happen this summer if Underwood is left in charge.

But the whole idea behind Cabrini Greens was to have the children working for Cabrini adults. And it hasn't been easy for Underwood as he's tried to yank children off the ghetto-go-round.

One hot, humid Saturday morning last summer two girls and a boy waited for Underwood's rickety van on a deserted Cabrini-Green corner. Thirteen-year-old Mysha Griffin stood holding a brown paper bag full of candy and potato chips, licking salt and crumbs off her fingers.

Davis was absent as usual, and Underwood was running late because he'd spent the night in the tomato garden, the one garden located outside of Cabrini, protecting it from vandals and thieves. This was the first year they'd had a garden at this site, behind a building for seniors at 3030 W. 21st Pl. It would also be the last, because 80 percent of the harvest was either stolen or damaged by residents or gangbangers.

Underwood, weary and stiff from trying to sleep in his van while listening to thunderstorms and gunfire, arrived at about 9 AM, half an hour late. The little group traveled only a couple minutes away to the lettuce field, on Scott near Larrabee, across the street from Schiller School, where the kids and Steve Williams, a volunteer, went to work cutting and gathering lettuce. Two more girls arrived about 20 minutes later. Eventually two more boys, then another wandered in, got knives from Underwood and Williams, and ambled into the field.

"The goal is to pick 15 pounds of lettuce today for Michael Jordan's restaurant," said Williams, pointing to the randomly planted field chock-full of various types of lettuce.

"We only got eight kids today," Underwood said. "Out of the 18 kids in the program we should have 12."

Slowly the children filled five big buckets with lettuce, then carried the pails across a vacant lot to a high-rise with a water spigot. The lettuce in each bucket was washed, then placed on a long plastic sheet so that the bad leaves could be plucked out. Rap music, with words like "nigger," "killer," and "bitch," poured from one of the apartment windows. But save for the gardeners, the place was deserted.

"We usually use the washtub over at the New City Y, but they're painting over there today," Underwood said.

Nonchalantly, the kids began lifting bunches of lettuce from the plastic, letting the wash water drain through their fingers. Then they lazily weeded out the bad leaves, one by one.

"I have to stop myself from doing the work," Underwood said. "Sometimes the window of opportunity to pick produce when it's the right size is so small. But I've learned that if I do the work they don't."

The kids put the good leaves back into the buckets and filled the pails with water for another washing. Underwood paced back and forth behind the children, then stooped over a bucket and picked out a wilted piece. "Who put this in there?" he asked.

"Mary," one boy shouted.

"I ain't even gone near that bucket," whined the 13-year-old Mary (not her real name).

Underwood went to another bucket and picked out more bad leaves. "Who put these in there?"

A chorus of four or five voices yelled "Mary!"

"Hey, see?" she said. "It's just the first name out they mouths."

"I don't really like gardening," said Mary, "but there's nothing else to do--even though I've got many places to go if I want to hang out, you know? I hang out at night and come in for curfew, but sometimes later than that. The worst thing about this job is pulling weeds. The best thing is picking tomatoes, 'cause it's easy."

Oddly enough, none of the children said the best thing about the job was the paycheck. "Money's not the best part," Mary said. "You eating stuff that's good for you from the garden, and that's better." Though she did add that the money came in handy for buying clothes. "I also bought a Sega game, and I share money with my family."

"Her mama probably steal her money," a boy said.

"No she don't!" Mary yelled.

The kids are guaranteed to make $250 by the end of the gardening season, but they usually end up making more than that. Under a payment plan Davis set up last summer, each kid gets $150 of the $250 when school starts to buy new shoes and clothes, and the remaining $100 is paid after the last of the produce is picked. But the kids are also paid $20 every two weeks, and they get a little bonus at the end of the season.

"I think Mary's mother took her $150, and now she doesn't have the right clothes for school," Underwood said. "Her mom is a drug addict. Once I was driving down the street at 11 PM and saw Mary playing on the street. I said, "What're you doing out here? It's past curfew.' A couple days later I go by her house to pick her up, and her mom says she hasn't seen Mary in two days. So one of my girls told me where Mary was. And when I go to get her she had bruises on her back and scratches on her face. She'd been fighting with her mother and her sister and ran away. So she stayed with us for a while, and when she went back home I saw bruises on her again. We have runaways stay at our house all the time. If we report them to the DCFS the mother comes and gets the kid and won't let us see them anymore--'cause we got 'em in trouble with the DCFS. So we lose the kid. And I've gone to too many funerals because the DCFS didn't do their job." He pauses. "Then there's Jack saying, "I just want you to focus on the business of gardening.' And I say, "Go to hell."'

After the lettuce leaves were washed and picked over again they were bagged and ready to go. But the goal was to take Michael Jordan's 15 pounds of lettuce. The four bags weighed only 5 pounds. But instead of going back to the field to pick more, the four girls piled into Underwood's van, and the four boys, three of them Underwood's, got into Williams's truck. They headed for the restaurant.

Underwood sent his daughter, 16-year-old Khalilah, and Mary into Michael Jordan's with the lettuce. Khalilah came out and got into Williams's truck with the boys, and they left to have a barbecue at Williams's Lincoln Park home. The three girls in Underwood's van didn't think this was fair, until they found out they were going to McDonald's.

"During the summer we usually meet at 8:30 AM, and I try to have the kids back home by 11:30, noon, so I don't have to buy them lunch," Underwood said. "But some days are hard and end at 3 PM.

And those hard days don't appeal to many Cabrini-Green children.

"There were three girls I thought would do good this summer," Underwood said. "But they walked out here and said "There's no sense in lying to you--we don't want dirt under our fingernails or worms or bugs.' And a lot of boys came through here who didn't want to work. I guess they didn't get the same thrill as hanging out on the corner breaking bottles. We went through 100 kids this summer and wound up with only 18. The kids have to acquire discipline to stay, and they have to work. If a kid walks up to me and says they want to work I say, convince your parent you want to work, then bring me your parent. If the parent comes to me and says, "He's a good kid--give him a chance,' or even if a teacher comes to me I give 'em a try. Mary's the only kid in our program who doesn't have a parent who's there for her. Everybody likes Mary, even though she has a ton of problems. But we can't take a lot of kids like her, because it takes time away from everyone else. And that's the problem Jack was having. He was trying to make it work with all the wrong kids, and he needed parents to be involved."

During many phone conversations last summer Davis and Underwood came to agree that the only way to help troubled, difficult children was to get partial custody of them during the year, then take them away from Cabrini-Green and put them to work in gardens outside the city. That was the plan Davis tried to put in motion last fall when he addressed the Urban Gardening Conference in Baltimore.

The conference was put on by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which owns some Illinois farmland Davis hoped to secure for growing tomatoes and reforming Cabrini toughs. But what he said during the seminar he led angered the 25 or so mostly minority people attending it. As usual, he belittled social programs, lambasted the Cabrini-Green parents, and knocked bleeding-heart liberals. Appalled by his caustic comments, the church turned down his request for the land. A crestfallen Davis said, "I blew it. I shouldn't have been so hard-nosed."

The plan for this year is to just keep the good kids out of trouble. "During the off-season, before we plant, I'm at the Schiller School," Underwood says. "This year I'm working with three seventh-grade classes and one eighth-grade class. We have seed tables at the school, and the idea is to work with kids in the seventh grade and again in the eighth. Last year was my first year in the school. I had one seventh-grade class--this year's eighth-grade class. And out of that whole seventh grade I only hired four kids, because not too many worked."

"I think we've got something the Chicago Public Schools should take a look at," Davis says. "In time I'd like to have 30, 40 garden acres in the city integrated with the school system. A lot of plants can be grown in schools and purchased from the kids. And I'd like to see younger and younger children getting involved. I see all these kids who don't know the first thing about getting a job, but if we can start working with kids in kindergarten and throughout grade school I think a lot of them would be all right."

DuSable High School, for example, has a pretty good track record of integrating agriculture into its curriculum. "We have two courtyards where we grow flowers and vegetables," says Dr. Emil Hamberlin, who teaches horticulture. "And we have a variety of animals--pigs, snakes, birds--that the kids take care of. It's been very successful. It serves as an anchor for the kids. For example, if a kid's attendance is poor and it's her responsibility to feed a macaw or take care of a flower bed, and she doesn't come in--something happens to that bird or the plants. So she begins showing up. We don't have many discipline problems, because working with plants and animals gets the kids' attention and focuses them--which carries over into math and science. And many of our students--at least 70 to 75 percent of them--go into technical schools or the military after they graduate."

DuSable's assistant to the principal, Odis Richardson, and Davis are in the process of drafting a curriculum that could connect all Cabrini-Green schools with Cabrini Greens. If it works they hope other housing projects and their schools will follow suit. Davis says business skills and economics would be part of the program. "If their plants were half dead the kids responsible for them wouldn't make as much money."

Neither DuSable nor Cabrini Greens is trying to make farmers out of inner-city kids. But both are trying to motivate them, teach them self-discipline, and, especially at Cabrini Greens, show them what it takes to become self-sufficient wage earners. Yet this spring only 15 kids, 4 of them Underwood's, are out gardening. And it's still not clear that Cabrini Greens will ever be profitable. Or that it will ever be run by Cabrini-Green residents. Or that upscale restaurants will ever be able to rely on it for produce.

"I really admire Jack's commitment to all of this," says Dr. Carol Adams, director of resident programs for the CHA. "But I think it's going to take more funding and a staff for him to accomplish what he wants to--because this has essentially been a one-man show."

It was Davis who last year raised the $60,000 that paid for equipment, field trips, Underwood's salary, and most of the children's stipends. What was left over went into the program's bank account, which now totals $43,000, most of it earmarked for a new van and a refrigeration system. It was Davis who last year tried to find a well-established not-for-profit foundation that would take on Cabrini Greens and raise considerable amounts of money for it, though he soon realized that not-for-profit organizations weren't interested because he intends the project to generate profits; he did, however, recruit volunteers from the Junior League of Chicago. And it was Davis who found Nancy Reece, the executive director for the Family Activity Center at the New City YMCA, whose JumpStart program offers high school teenagers skills training and helps them find internships. She and Davis have been writing grant proposals to fund joint projects, and they've already arranged to have Cabrini Greens grow and sell basil to Near North Career Metropolitan High School, where older Cabrini-Green students will turn it into pesto and then sell it to the Whole Foods grocery chain. Reece and Davis also recently bought a van that both their programs can use.

Davis says this year he plans to be active in the gardens again. He still has visions of a country garden with dormitories where gangbangers can start to reform, and he's found someone to lend him one piece of that vision. George Ball Jr., chairman and president of the Burpee Seed Company, has been a big supporter of Cabrini Greens, and he owns land in Elburn, where this summer tomatoes can be grown away from thieves and vandals. There's no housing, so the kids will be driven out there periodically during the summer. "We don't just throw money at things," Ball says. "We look at not-for-profit organizations in view of their sustainability. One has to grow and evolve, so to speak. And Cabrini Greens has. What Jack is doing is virtuous. What motivates him doesn't really motivate our consumer society."

This spring tensions seem to have eased a bit around the garden. After Underwood had a long talk with him, Murdock became a Cabrini Greens fund-raiser, and Davis has agreed to pay him for this service, perhaps through a commission. And Cabrini-Green's local advisory council is in line to receive some federal funding and wants to give some of it to Cabrini Greens--provided more adult residents become employees.

But Davis doesn't think he's made much progress with the parents. "They're not trying to get their kids in the program," he says. But then he adds, "I'm not a quitter. Never have been. Never will be."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Cynthia Howe.

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