From Parklands to Concrete: Plans for the Los Angeles River

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1 From Parklands to Concrete: Plans for the Los Angeles River Senior Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements for graduation in Environmental Analysis By Danyang Zhao Pomona College Claremont, California December

2 Acknowledgements: I am grateful for my thesis advisors and readers who have generously agreed to take time to assist me in this project. In particular, I would like to thank Professor Andre Wakefield from Pitzer College for his valuable help as the primary reader of my thesis. His course in Environmental History provided the framework that motivated me to look at the Los Angeles River from a historical perspective. I also owe much of this thesis to Professor Jeff Groves from Harvey Mudd College. Had it not been his Building Los Angeles course, I would have never looked at the Los Angeles River in such a critical way. The edits and comments that he provided on the draft of the thesis were also invaluable in creating this final product. Thanks must also be given to Professor Char Miller from Pomona College for his suggested sources and helped direction early in the project. The enthusiasm and encouragement are much appreciated! Even though Professor Richard Hazlett was on sabbatical this year, I must thank him profusely for his academic guidance for the past four years that enabled me to get to this point. Lastly, I want to thank all my friends and family who have helped me through this process. Thanks to Vicki and Dorian for always believing in me. Danyang Zhao December

3 From Parklands to Concrete: Plans for the Los Angeles River If that lover of poetry and romance could return today and stand upon the banks of the Los Angeles River, much like other rivers, save in the quality of its wave reflection, he would find it possessing still all its ancient possibilities of beauty and adornment, despite the fact that its banks are lined with factories and the river bed itself is sought by utilitarian corporations. - Dana Bartlett, The Better City, Carrying in its cargo a bellyful of families, tourists, and students, the Boeing 747 descends into Los Angeles International Airport. The plane pierces through the dark cloudy sky and offers the visitors their first glimpses of the city. Looking down, a dense and constant flow of red and yellow lights marks the landscape with neat, elegantly curved lines that embody a glamorous and developed city. A system constantly in flux with repairs, expansions, and deterioration, the highway infrastructure is the main lifeline of modern day Los Angeles, providing throughput, mobility, and economic heartbeat to the metropolis. Further along, carved through the heart of Downtown is a narrow, unlit channel, barely visible in the darkness, that pales in comparison to the luminous six-lane freeways that crisscross at the city s center. Yet, two hundred years ago, the Los Angeles River, now confined by this concrete channel, would have nourished this arid landscape with its flow and provided the early visitors to the region promise of sunlight, clean air, and plentiful water. 1 Bartlett, Dana W.. The better city; a sociological study of a modern city. Los Angeles: Neuner Co. Press,

4 Los Angeles is an unlikely city built on lofty dreams and populated with eager expectations. In an area that is victim to frequent fires, floods, and earthquakes, the city s only real resource was its river. Despite the harsh environment, acres of orange groves and rows of grapes sprouted from its shallow riverbanks. Touted for its mild climate and beautiful scenery, Los Angeles became known as a paradise in the West. Ironically, though not surprising, the Los Angeles River, which had supported the incredible growth of the city, began to deteriorate under the pressure of increasing population and development. The waterway dried up as the much needed water was diverted from its source. As the channel looked less and less like a river, the residents of Los Angeles stopped treating the river as an ecological space. Plans to protect scenic spaces throughout the city overlooked the Los Angeles River as a potential resource. When seasonal floods devastated the southland, and the U.S. Corps of Engineers rolled into town, proposing to line the riverbed with tons of concrete, residents saw the Los Angeles River as nothing more than an adversary to be conquered and supported the idea. Until recent years, the river and its concrete banks were eyesores for the city residents but were generally accepted as just the way things were. New plans to restore and revitalize the waterway, however, prompted some residents to view the river with new potential. Throughout its modern history, attitudes about the Los Angeles River have been as fluid as the river s uncontrolled flow. This volatility can be seen in the various plans proposed for the river that have all envisioned something different for the river. The context in which they were written reflects the aspirations and fears of the time. The three most momentous ones that are highlighted in this paper are Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches by Olmsted and Bartholomew, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineer plans, and the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. These projects are distinctive and span a wide timeframe. The success or failure of the designs will 4

5 guide us in thinking about the modern Los Angeles River from a historical perspective and form a reasonable vision of it for the future. *** These days, modern water reclamation projects and flood control measures have reduced the Los Angeles River to nothing more than a trickle for most days of the year. Yet, before the founding of the city, early accounts by travelers described a rich diversity of plants and animal life in the region supported by the river. The records suggest that parts of Southern California were once covered by marshes, thickets, and dense woods. Shrubs, vines, and wild berries were also common as were bears and other wild animals that made travel a dangerous affair. This description of the landscape in Los Angeles County seems unlikely now since most descriptions of native vegetation usually conjure up an image of earth-tones and spiny plants. However, such a drastic change in the vegetation is, perhaps, reflective of the impact that dense development and water projects has had on the local ecology. 2 The average precipitation of the region is low. The foliage and green vegetation that existed in the region would have depended on the seasonal deluge that came down from the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains. The runoff is then carried by Los Angeles River over an expansive watershed, inundating certain regions and recharging deep aquifers. Even as late as 1888, nearly a third of the coastal plain was covered by soils that were regularly inundated or had been permanently damaged by floodwaters. 3 This cycle of heavy seasonal surface flows and low rainfall throughout the rest of the year made the Los Angeles River particularly vulnerable to flooding. For most months of the year, the river is a small, gentle waterway. Its 2 Aschmann, Homer. "The Evolution of a Wild Landscape and Its Persistence in Southern California." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 49, no. 3 (1959): Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: its life, death, and possible rebirth. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press,

6 meager flow prevents it from carving out channels deep and wide enough to withstand the winter storms. As the result, floods occur almost on an annual basis as the storm water overflows the riverbanks, creating new paths through the landscape. The Los Angeles River can shift its path to the sea by as much as ninety degrees. At times, the river turned sharply west, discharging into the sea at Playa del Rey, while other times the course of the river flows directly south to San Pedro Bay, a distance more than 20 miles apart. 4 Even though the Los Angeles River was unpredictable and often dangerous, native residents of the region learned to adapt and thrive. The natural habitats created by the Los Angeles River supported one of the earliest residents of the region, a culturally advanced Native American tribes known as the Gabrielino Indians. The Gabrielino tribes were hunter and gatherers that benefited from the rich diversity of the plant and animal life in the region. The rivers and marshes also provided raw materials needed for their thatched homes. At the time of the first Spanish expedition, there were more than twenty-six villages within a mile of the Los Angeles River. 5 While the Gabrielino lived off the riches of river, the locations of their settlements also revealed an understanding of its dangers. Many of their villages were located at a sufficient distance or on a high ground to assure their safety in time of flood. In addition, since the Gabrielino did not practice agriculture, they never built any major water projects that attempted to modify the overall course of the river. The river proved to be even more important to the Europeans and Euro-Americans, particularly the Spanish colonists, who arrived in the region in the 1770s. The first eight missions and three presidios set up by Spain along the California coast from 1769 to 1777 were unable to grow enough of their own food and became dependent almost entirely on food brought from 4 Gumprecht, Gumprecht, 18 6

7 central Mexico by ship. 6 Los Angeles (then named El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles) was the third pueblo, or agricultural colony, formed in Southern California with the purpose of providing food for the missions in the area. The pueblos needed to be near land suitable for irrigation. The preferred locations were areas in the immediate vicinity with the river or near the principle irrigation ditch. The first colonies occupied roughly 18 thousand acres with about 9000 acres of planting fields. The reliable water supply from the Los Angeles River helped the pueblo achieve self sufficiency by 1786, a mere five years from its founding on September 4 th, By then, the main irrigation ditch has been constructed and the settlers have had bountiful harvests of wheat, beans, and maize. The successful diversion and control of Los Angeles River changed the dynamics in the region between the Spanish colonists and the Native Americans. Before the pueblos, the Spanish missionaries and soldiers depended heavily on supplies. When provisions were delay, they had to survive on whatever provisions they could obtain from the various Indian tribes. With the help of neighboring Native American tribes, the settlers moved beyond farming for mere subsistence. Surplus of crops and cattle were traded and the pueblos slowly became a colonial economic power. Early mission priests even went as far as to state that the success of the pueblos were due more to the genteel Indian of the neighboring rancherias than to the settlers. Yet, despite their contributions to the success of the pueblos, they were given few rights in the settlements. Indians were used as cheap labor and when the pueblos grew more populous, they were seen as a burden on the scarce resources in the land. In a move that would foreshadow the conflict over water in the region, when the demand for water in the pueblo outstripped the supply, the town government ordered that all drunken Indians be 6 Gumprecht, 41. 7

8 arrested and required to work on the irrigation ditches until the amount of water they carried increased. Los Angeles grew beyond basic agricultural crops and began to focus on the export of cash crops. With the arrival of French winemakers and growers, grapes quickly became the mainstay agricultural produce of the region. By 1817, there were an estimated 53,686 vines under cultivation and Los Angeles, not San Francisco or the Napa Valley, became California s first important wine-producing center. 7 By 1850, Los Angeles County was the number one winemaking county in the nation, producing a third more than its nearest competitor. 8 Later on, Los Angeles gained nationwide acclaim for its scenic boulevards lined with orchards and groves. The warm Mediterranean climate along with an ample water supply allowed growers to experiment with a wide variety of crops. Different farmers introduced bananas, figs, Italian chestnuts, tobacco, peanuts, peaches, pears, and asparagus to the region. As Los Angeles develops into one of the richest agricultural regions in the nation, water from the Los Angeles River becomes increasingly important and scarce. By 1870, there were eight main irrigation channels that diverted water directly from the Los Angeles River. 9 These were crude open earthen ditches dug through porous ground, largely ungoverned with few regulations. As the amount of water diverted from the river increased, theft of the water became a problem. The channels also became unsanitary since there were no bridges over the ditches so livestock, wagons, and pedestrians regularly splashed through the public water supply. In response to these problems, the city government established the position of zanjero that oversaw the maintenance of the ditches, issued permits, collected fees, and enforced ordinances. Due to the importance of water in the arid region, the zanjero quickly 7 Gumprecht, 47 8 Gumprecht, 49 9 Gumprecht, 61. 8

9 became the most powerful public official in Los Angeles with the highest paying salary of any city employee. In 1877, the city began a comprehensive plan to develop the river s resources by enlarging several channels and creating new ditches that fanned in every direction from the river. 10 New bonds for these water projects were rapidly created and passed. Yet, even as the city raced to meet the increasing demand for water with pumps, ditches, and dams, it was the completion of a transcontinental railroad that permanently altered the character of the Los Angeles River. The Southern Pacific Railroad connected with Los Angeles in Then, in 1886, a second cross-country line, the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe was finished. The two lines spurred a fare war that made it possible, for a single day, to travel from Kansas City to Los Angeles for a dollar. Almost overnight, Southern California became incredibly accessible to those in the east. Land developers seized the opportunity and promoted the Los Angeles region feverously. The promoters described the region as an undisturbed promised land and perpetuated the image of bountiful resource and beautiful sunshine. Some developers were unscrupulous in their advertisements. In particular, images of Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers were almost always exaggerated. One subdivision map circulated in Eastern cities showed docking spaces on the Los Angeles River. 11 Other images portrayed the river as a deep, full waterway, more akin to the Mississippi than the intermittent stream that it actually is. Yet, the advertisements and flyers worked. People from all over the country flocked to California looking for a piece of paradise. The population of Los Angeles County grew from 33,881 in 1880 to 101,454 a decade later Gumprecht, Charles D. Clark, Land Subdivision, in Los Angeles: Preface to a Master Plan, ed. George W. Robbins and L. Deming Tilton, Pacific Southwest Academy Publication 19 (Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1941), Gumprecht, 84 9

10 Towns and subdivisions that existed only on the flyers printed by deceitful developers actually came to life as the population boom created cities overnight. The influx of new immigrants changed the economic and environmental landscape of Los Angeles in drastic ways. Los Angeles had been known as the City of Vines but demands for housing and commercial districts made land that has been farmed since the establishment of the pueblo too valuable for agriculture. Plain city lots that sold for $500 in 1886 brought in ten times that amount just a year later. 13 The vineyards and orange groves, elements that drew visitors to the city in the first place were being displaced to the north and south off the city along the river. More than nine irrigation ditches extended beyond the limits of the city and carried water from the river to the new farms. In the tumultuous decades that ended the 19 th century, the City of Los Angeles battled on multiple fronts to secure enough freshwater for the growing city. In court, the City of Los Angeles fought to secure legal and exclusive rights to the water from the Los Angeles River. The City maintained that the founding of the pueblo gave Los Angeles absolute rights to all of the water in the Los Angeles River. The city, thus, had the right to deny any diversion from the Los Angeles River by other counties. A lawsuit was 1879 by Anastacio Feliz, who argued, on the grounds of riparian rights, that as the owner of property adjacent to the river, he had the right to use a reasonable amount of its flow. The case, Feliz v. Los Angeles, was defeated in court. The subsequent decision of Vernon Irrigation Co. v. Los Angeles, established that the City of Los Angeles did indeed have pueblo rights to all of the water from the Los Angeles River. 14 Even the exclusive rights to all of the water in the Los Angeles proved to not be enough. When the city regained control of the waterworks in 1902 after more than thirty-five years of 13 Gumprecht, Gumprecht,

11 leasing the rights to the Los Angeles City Water Company, the city s water department officials completed a survey of the Los Angeles River. The engineers used the river s average dry season flow as a guide and estimated that the Los Angeles River could reliably provide forty-five to fifty million gallons of water a day. In other cities, this volume might have been expected to supply a residential population of around 400,000 people. However, in 1901, Los Angeles residents consumed 306 gallons of water per person each day, more than three times the rate of consumption of many eastern cities. 15 Domestic was estimated to outstrip supply when the population of Los Angeles reached 150,000 (which it promptly did in 1904) unless effective conservation measures were taken. The water department immediately took to installing more than eight thousand water meters. This was a significant project since only 319 homes and businesses had water meters prior to this effort. 16 In addition, more dams were built, reservoirs expanded, and aquifers tapped. Yet, local water resources and conservation efforts were simply unable to keep up with the increasing population growth. In 1880, it took almost a decade for population to double; from 1902 to 1906, population of Los Angeles doubled from 128,000 to 240,000 in four short years. The city was forced to either limit growth or look elsewhere for water. Even at the brink of water shortage exacerbated by the drought from 1893 to 1904, William Mulholland, the infamous engineer and director of the water department defended the city s extravagant use of the water. He boasted that the city s beauty was built upon a bountiful supply of water and that per capita water usage in Los Angeles cannot be expected to fall to the levels in the eastern cities. 17 The publically arrogant attitude quickly endeared Mulholland to 15 Alfred Dougas Flinn, Robert Spurr Weston, and Clinton Lathrop Bogert, Waterworks Handbook (New York, 1916), 414, Gumprecht, Gumprecht,

12 all other users of water in the West. His statement, however cavalier as it is, revealed a stubbornness shared by city officials and residents alike, to maintain an image of paradise in a region of scarcity and disaster. Any propositions to limits water use and growth were unpopular- -even blasphemous--at the time. Rather than cutting back, Mulholland instead engineered a $23 million project to bring water from Owens Valley to the people of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles-Owens Valley aqueduct is shrouded in controversy but it is also undeniably one of the greatest engineering feats in U.S. history. Its 223 miles of pipeline, conduits and channels stretched across the Mojave Desert and carved through numerous mountain ranges with 52 miles of tunnels. 18 The aqueduct supplied 325 million gallons of water a day to Los Angeles, more than seven times the normal flow of the Los Angeles River. The aqueduct was built in the nick of time. When the project was complete in 1913, the population of the county was close to half a million people. Consumption during a tenday period in June averaged 61.3 million gallons a day, 50 percent more than the Los Angeles could supply at the time due to drought conditions. The water that the aqueduct supplied to the city greatly overshadowed the amount that could be drawn from the Los Angeles River. As the result, the role of the river quickly diminished in the eyes of the residents. By the time the aqueduct was complete, the river had already ran dry in some portions near Downtown due to the diversions of its surface and subsurface flow upstream. The dams and reservoirs had starved the river so much that it was almost forgotten. On July 29, 1905, when the Los Angeles-Owens Valley aqueduct was proposed, the Los Angeles Times announced the news with the headline. Titanic Project to Give City a River "Los Angeles Aqueduct Facts." LADWP: Los Angeles Aqueduct. (accessed November 4, 2010). 19 "Los Angeles Daily Times: Titanic Project to Give City a River, " Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures. (accessed November 4, 2010). 12

13 Ever since the railroads linked up in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles River had served a mostly economical rather than an ecological service for the city. Industrial development in Downtown had destroyed much of the habitats along the riverbanks. Going into the 20 th century, there were few documents that described the river s scenery or fauna. Once the aqueduct had relieved the Los Angeles River from even its water supplying duties, the river became an empty space, a void in the city that was, at best, ignored, and at times of flood, a threat to human life and property. There were some who saw the Los Angeles River as a clean slate, an opportunity to construct a new social, economic, or ecological ecosystem in the heart of the metropolis. Many of the ideas came from newcomers who were inspired to change the river to fit their own experience. One of the first notable accounts was by Dana Bartlett, a New England minister and progressive writer. Despite the industrial landscape built along the river at the time, in 1907 he published a book titled The Better City that envisioned cleaning up the riverbanks and augmenting the river with ornamental bridges, esplanade with park effects, and a pleasant promenade beautifully lighted at night. 20 He saw the potential to connect civic centers and community facilities to the river, allowing residents to benefit from the natural environment. Similarly, in 1930, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and Harland Bartholomew, two eastern landscape architects published a more ambitious and comprehensive plan to create a series of parkways along the Los Angele River. Their efforts cumulated into a 178-page document titled Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region. Had their plans been adopted, the drive down from Broadway Boulevard through Chinatown would have looked drastically different today. 20 Bartlett,

14 However, the city rejected the plans and spent the next decades fighting devastating floods. When local flood control efforts failed, the United States Army Corps of Engineers stepped in and with the help of federal funds, completed a series of major modifications that left almost the entire length of the Los Angeles River lined with concrete. The flood control measures put in place were successful. Yet, the river became an eyesore for visitors and residents. In recent years, debate about the river started again, this time with new characters and new ideas. A politician running for office in Los Angeles proclaimed that, if elected, he would paint the bed of the river blue to make it look more like a river. 21 State Assemblyman Richard Katz in 1989 suggested using the river as a truck route and automobile expressway during dry months to ease traffic on local freeways. 22 Opposed to this plan, the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR), a small nonprofit organization, rose to prominence on a platform to restore the original ecosystem of the river. Years later, The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan was published and its transformative and progressive vision became the most recent plan for the waterway. Throughout its history, attitudes about the river have been prophetically predictive of its fate. When the residents of Los Angeles failed to see the river as an ecological space, they passed on the plan to develop the waterway into a series of urban green spaces. Later on, the city and its residents sought to control the river as major floods interrupted the swift economic development of the region. The various plans proposed in the past revealed the opinions about the river at the time. How these populous attitudes worked to shape the outcome for the river is especially important as a new phase of restoration and development is abound for the Los Angeles River. From the history of its planned development, it is clear that the opinions of the 21 Gumprecht, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Harland Bartholomew, and Charles Henry Cheney, A Major Traffic Street Plan for Los Angeles. 1924,

15 local residents matter greatly, and the revitalization of the river is not possible without first changing the way residents view the waterway. 15

16 The Green Corridor Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region 23 was delivered to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce on March 16, The Los Angeles Examiner and Los Angeles Times announced the plan with grandeur, proclaiming it as the Greatest of Recreational Development Projected in Los Angeles. The authors of the plan were the Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and Harland Bartholomew, both renowned landscape architects in their time. They would go on to design numerous high-profile projects including Piedmont Park in Atlanta, roadways for Acadia National Parks, and numerous universities and residential neighborhoods. The two had just recently completed a survey of the road and highway systems in Los Angeles. 24 The acclaim for the new project was thus, well deserved, and citizens of Los Angeles must have felt a certain pride to receive one of Olmsted and Bartholomew s most comprehensive and lengthy plans. Yet, in the months that followed, talk of the project was reduced to a few mentions in the local papers. After that, it was as if the project had never existed. Landscape journal never covered the momentous work. The plan was not even ridiculed in the public arena. Less than 200 copies of the Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan were eventually printed, just enough copies for each member of the Chamber. The few existing copies now are only viewable in university libraries and museums. Revisiting plan today, there is some sense of regret at a lost opportunity. The details in the Olmsted-Bartholomew plan were incredibly rich. Had the designs followed through, the scatterplot of small parks in Downtown Los Angeles would have been interconnected through a network of scenic parkways. The green corridors would have been a much kinder frame for the 23 Hereafter referred to as the Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan or Parks, Playgrounds, and Beach. 24 Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Harland Bartholomew, and Charles Henry Cheney, A Major Traffic Street Plan for Los Angeles. 1924,

17 Los Angeles River than the decrepit warehouses there today. The sudden end Olmsted- Bartholomew Plan also marked the end of an era in landscape design and city planning. Its failure was a sign of a frugal future that focused more on practicality than community. Moreover, Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches failed to mention of the Los Angeles River as a viable ecological space, revealing the way attitudes about the river and its surrounding environs had changed in the 1920s. *** Sons of the famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Central Park in New York, Frederick Law Jr. and John Charles Olmsted were well respected urban designers in their day. Partnered with Harland Bartholomew, their design firms were considered some of the best in the nation. Prior to their work in the Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches report, they ve had some experience working in Los Angeles. Olmsted had completed development plans for Palos Verdes Estate and Bartholomew laid out the commercial district in the famous Westwood Village. 25 In 1924, the two first collaborated on a design for the local road network and published a report titled A Major Traffic Street Plan for Los Angeles. Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches was called for by a citizens committee, an exclusive group of influential individuals that are made up of different members in the local manufacturing industry, and the financial and real estate sectors. 26 Membership in the committee was by subscription and the funds generated went to finance a study of public spaces. Though the committee s motives appeared to be altruistic, they were merely planning for the future. Heading into the 1930s, Los Angeles County already had far less area devoted to 25 Gumprecht, Hise, Greg, and William Francis Deverell. Eden by design: the 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew plan for the Los Angeles region. Berkeley: University of California Press,

18 parks and playgrounds when compared to other metropolitan areas in the United States, while the population continued to grow at an amazing rate. Committee members foresaw that it would become much more difficult to set aside land for public use in the future. Early on the in the 20 th century, tourism became an important part of Southern Californian economy. The Chamber of Commerce feared that rapid development would be detrimental to the city s two most appealing features: its beaches and scenic resources. Urban development had begun to sweep west over the mountains and settled on hilltop ridges, encroaching on valuable shoreline. In areas like Castle Rock, high-price housing on newly paved streets appeared overnight. Beaches were fenced off in reserve for property owners in the area. Committee members saw this as threat to tourism and real estate. They worried that these short-sighted subdivisions could lead to a decrease in the overall economic welfare for Los Angeles County. Apart from economic reasons, the committee members also saw parks and playgrounds as way to improve health, reduce delinquency and promote citizenship in the city s congested districts. Some members believed that supervised play areas could cultivate positive ideals in youth and help children of immigrants better assimilate into society. These were Progressive-era ideals very similar to those held by Dana Bartlett and others. They saw the parks, recreation areas, and the outdoors as a remedy to the excesses of an increasingly industrialized urban center. 27 In the end, despite the fears of a deteriorating environment, the Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan was commissioned with a sense of optimism. By planning ahead, the committee members showed that they had faith in the economy and the status quo. They were certain that the 27 Hise,

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