In my work, which I have tried to synthesize for this essay, I have upon occasion borrowed, mostly retroactively, from Jean Baudrillard, or other notable French, or otherwise, intellectuals to support my theorizing, descriptions, and/or findings; even my musings. It is, or was, a recognition that, without significant disciplinary reputation, my own scholarly efforts might not be able to stand the slings and arrows alone, as reviewers always look to see if something is supported by or fit into, established ways of thinking about a subject. Thinking outside the box is a privilege for those who don’t need approval. In this brief essay, I would like to show how bits of his work can warn, advise, caution, and inform ways of seeing the world around me.
When I first perused “America,” I thought to myself how I would have loved to get away with such free, verbose, expression. I remember being taught in graduate school that my feelings about a subject of study, without supporting numbers, graphs, and charts, were not only irrelevant but dangerously extraneous verbiage. They were, as is America, essentially, more a work of art rather than science and therefore academically irrelevant. In many ways, his whirlwind reflections on the country in which I live appeared to me as jagged fragments that would at best serve as a collection of intriguing pieces for a jigsaw puzzle of a psychedelic map of the USA.
I was particularly struck by his feelings about New York City and its people; although to my disappointment he seemed not to have ventured outside of Manhattan and its verticality; which I despise, and which is now demolishing the relatively less dizzying horizontality of the city’s outer boroughs. I had hoped as well that he had spent some time (perhaps he did without comment) in New York’s Little Italies and other Ethnic Theme Parks. These are the places in which the commodified social, cultural and symbolic capital produced by immigrants and their offspring, have produced diverse vernacular landscapes, festivals, restaurants, and other amusements for outsiders. In other words, where the places and its inhabitants are sold. (Krase 2012b) These social rubrics or ethnic genres of urban commercial precincts are “simulacrae” of a commodified ethnic theme park.
Although my own work does not derive in any way from a reading of Jean Baudrillard (1983), I think it is important to offer a sense of the ways in which his much more intensive concerns dovetail with my own. As opposed to representations that are a product of reality, these simulated representations are prior to, and therefore determine, what is “real” for the viewer. The postmodern observer’s inability to distinguish between reality and the simulacrum is the result of a number of forces, especially the powerful media culture that not only relays information but also interprets it for the receiver. They are not merely a hegemonic demographic designation (a place dominated by particular residents). Rather, it is an idea about a place that can be marketed in one way or another.
When discussing the visualization of American Cities. (2012a: 109-138), I argued that Jean Baudrillard reserved a special place for American cities that are, for want of better terminology, an urban je ne sais quoi. In other more or less European places one could find assembled the same social and physical elements. However, he thought that “missing” were the “sparkle and violence” and the “immense skies” that shaped the American mind. Speaking ill of Paris’ “sickly buildings,” and its high-rise business district la Defense as a French garden—“a bunch of buildings with a ribbon around it” (2010: 15), Baudrillard exalted the American city for its mad spatial competition that rejects constraints and approaches the arrogance of the urban Renaissance. For him, even demolition is a worthy spectacle:
The twenty-storey block remains perfectly vertical as it slides towards the centre of the earth. It falls straight, with no loss of its upright bearing, like a tailor’s dummy falling through a trap-door, and its own surface area absorbs the rubble. What a marvellous modern art form this is, a match for the firework displays of our childhood. (16)
Since I am more interested in the streets than the skylines, Baudrillard offered, now dated, rejoinder:
They say the streets are alive in Europe, but dead in America. They are wrong. Nothing could be more intense, electrifying, turbulent, and vital than the streets of New York. They are filled with crowds, bustle, and advertisements, each by turns aggressive or casual. There are millions of people in the streets, wandering, carefree, violent, as if they had nothing better to do—and doubtless they have nothing else to do—than produce the permanent scenario of the city. There is music everywhere; the activity is intense, relatively violent, and silent (it is not the agitated, theatrical activity you find in Italy). The streets and avenues never empty, but the neat, spacious geometry of the city is far removed from the thronging intimacy of the narrow streets of Europe. (2010:16)
Robert Venturi offered an equally powerful vision of American urban landscapes that complements the conflicting notions of J.B. Jackson (1984) and Wilbur Zelinsky 1991). Venturi continues to be for architectural critics and historians, and me, the most salient reference. The architectural theorist Jean La Marche placed him, along with his partner Denise Scott Brown, among four seminal twentieth-century architects and firms that included Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Aldo Rossi. Venturi tried to entice American architects, planners, and builders away from the predictable modernism that dominated the field in the 1960s. Of special importance was his concern for quotidian urban life and commercial signage.
Origin and Theorizing Theme Parks
As I have written about Theme Parks (2019), large-scale public amusements have been around since ancient times in the form of religious and state sponsored festivals and performances. Historically such spectacular, often themed, collective celebrations functioned primarily to unify populations and create, or maintain, collective solidarity. In addition to confirming the social order, during the Middle-Ages, local and regional fairs provided a wide range of diversions to large crowds. Large-scale religious festivals evolved during this period and continue until today as city-wide spectacles such as Rio di Janeiro’s Mardis Gras.
The most powerful iteration of themed amusement parks was the 1955 opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. It was the product of the imaginative genius of Walt Disney. For Jean Baudrillard, Disneyland was the most real place in American because it admits to being only a simulation. “The objective profile of the United States, then, may be traced throughout Disneyland, even down to the morphology of individuals and the crowd. All its values are exalted here, in miniature and comic-strip form. Embalmed and pacified.” (Poster 1998: 171)
Regardless of profit motivations, variations of Disneyland, resorts, and even an ideally themed American town — “Celebration” — have been developed around the globe. They have also given rise to a major concept in sociological discourse concerning the relations between urban spaces and the people who use or inhabit them. “Disneyfication,” is the transformation of something real and unsettling into a controlled and safe environment with similar qualities. The discourse has been enhanced by similar, more academic terms, such as “disneyization” connected to theories of consumption (Bryman 1999). George Ritzer’s post-modernist version — “McDisneyization” — have expanded Disney’s idealized conceptualizations about generic spaces into a globalizing homogenizing style. (1998)
The notion of theme parks as spaces in which individual freedom is accentuated has been turned on its head by many contemporary urbanists and social critics. The leading exponent of the negative view is architect and urbanist Michael Sorkin who declared
This is the meaning of the theme park, the place that embodies it all, the ageographia, the surveillance and control, the simulations without end. The theme park presents its happy regulated vision of pleasure — all these artfully hoodwinking forms — as a substitute for the democratic public realm and it does so appealingly by stripping troubled urbanity of its sting, of the presence of the poor, of crime, of dirt, of work.” (1992: Xv)
In Variations on a Theme Park, Sorkin, presented eight essays by leading urban scholars. They were highly critical of the elitism of designers and planners that resulted in the alienation of users of a wide range of urban spaces and places such as large-scale shopping malls, and recreated historical settings. In the same volume, Neil Smith, also discussed the role of taming unruly spaces played in gentrification and displacement New York City’s Lower East Side. (2002 see also Krase and DeSena 2016)
Such critics see contemporary cities destroying the familiar, albeit messy, liberating spaces of cities that underpinned their historically democratic potential. They also elevated, without defining, the value of visible and accessible “authentic” urban places that served to bind together the ideas and activities of increasingly diverse populations. Instead of a city wrought by organic growth, contemporary urban planners and designers crafted a collection of special districts governed by marketing and feasibility studies. These social spatial strategies served to help “tame” the stereotypical disorder of the dangerous city.
While Sorkin cautioned against the loss of the bonding power of familiar spaces, elsewhere Richard Sennett had already lamented the sequester of differences because of the fear that they might be more “mutually threatening than mutually stimulating.” (1990: xii) Much earlier, Lyn Lofland had dealt with the evolution of the contemporary metropolis as a social system whose central value is managing social, cultural, and economic heterogeneity. She also spoke to the danger that fear of the “other” would create a safe but dehumanized urban life and culture in the “Public Realm.” (Lofland, 1998) Relatedly, Sharon Zukin lamented the loss of authenticity resulting from the upscaling and homogenizing redevelopment of streets, neighborhoods, and public spaces that compromises their distinctive identity. (2010: xi).
On the other hand, Susan Fainstain asked whether contempt for Disney’s widely copied model of blending theme parks, shopping malls, and street scenes together is a product “intellectual snobbery.” She “… argued that Disney World and Times Square constitute a democratic tourism and provide common reference points in an increasingly fragmented world. (2007: 14) However, as a result of such theming and tourism, urban culture itself has become a commodity, and cities have a competitive advantage over suburbs. (2007: 1) Theme parks are a form of “commodification” — when economic value is assigned to something not previously considered in economic terms such as an idea, identity or gender. Here I should note that LBGTQ neighborhoods in cities have joined ethnic enclaves as popular tourist destinations.
David Harvey organized spectacles in urban imagery which cities can employ for consumer dollars and investment Although primarily concerned with the modern or post-modern version of “display of the commodity” under the constraints of “ flexible accumulation,” he noted that since the ancient Roman “Bread and Festivals” spectacles have also existed as a means of social control. Their creation and maintenance are also associated with increasing social and spatial polarization of urban class antagonisms. (1989: 270-73)
Kevin Fox Graham closely examined urban festivals in New Orleans, Louisiana (2005) and employed ideas of Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre to discuss the conflicts of meanings inherent in local celebrations such as Mardi Gras, suggesting that despite consisting of “hegemonic ideologies and dominant images” these events also offer opportunities for local resistance against corporate control.
“What is new today is the way in which different types of spectacle (shopping malls, casinos, world’s fairs, sports, theme parks, tourist-oriented celebrations, and so on) and different technologies of spectacle (theming, simulation, virtual reality, and so on) have encroached into the public realm and the everyday life of the city.” (2005: 242).
Theme Parks as Representation
For Kevin Lynch landscapes play a social role “…as a vast mnemonic system for the retention of group history and ideals.” (1960: 126) The disaster landscape wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 provided New Orleans with new imagery. Consequently, Symbolic Interactionists Mark Hutter and DeMond Miller discussed the re-branding of New Orleans’ urban image as a “come back city.” One aspect was incorporating “Emotionally charged places, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, that have collective memories of death, destruction, are assembled as part of a package to be sold as a complete “Disney-style” tour experience of the city of New Orleans.” (2011: 7)
There are many examples of theme park tourism that appeal to morbid interests. I have argued, regrettably, that places like the Jewish Ghetto of Kazimiersz and Oswiecem Death Camp in Poland are of this genre. “Slumming” and ghetto tourism are similar genres that invite visitors to safely sample the dangers of stigmatized, places and peoples. As to the preservation of historically oppressive ghettos for tourists, some have argued that it helps to maintain false ideas about their inhabitants. Both real and imagined, “exotic’, ethnic places, especially Chinatowns and Black Ghettos, have been common urban spectacles producing contrasting attractive and repellent visual mental images. Jan Rath called for innovative approaches to better understand the process by which “expressions of immigrant culture can be transformed into vehicles for socio-economic development to the advantage of both immigrants and the city at large.” (2007: i)
In contrast, John Urry employs Baudrillard to criticize such urban “seeing” as something which fascinates and denigrates.
On the one hand, we live in a society of spectacle as cities have been transformed into diverse and collectable spectacles. But on the other hand, there is denigration of the mere sightseer to different towns and cities. The person who only lets the sense of sight have free rein is ridiculed. Such sightseers are taken to be superficial in their appreciation of environments, peoples, and places. Many people are often embarrassed about mere sightseeing. Sight is not seen as the noblest of the senses but as the most superficial, as getting in the way of real experiences that should involve other senses and necessitate much longer periods of time in order to be immersed in the site/ sight (see Crawshaw and Urry 1997, for further detail).
The critique of the sightseer is taken to the extreme in the analysis of “hyper- reality,” forms of simulated experience which have the appearance of being more “real” than the original (Baudrillard 1981; Eco 1986). The sense of vision is reduced to a limited array of features, it is then exaggerated and it comes to dominate the other senses. Hyper-real places are characterized by surface which does not respond to or welcome the viewer. The sense of sight is seduced by the most immediate and visible aspects of the scene, such as the facades of Main Street in Disneyland. (2011: 349-50)
I think of commodified themed districts as what Jean Baudrillard (1983), called a “third order of simulacra” that are found in the postmodern age. As opposed to representations previously discussed as the product of reality, these representations are prior to and determine the real. The postmodern inability to distinguish between reality and the simulacrum results from of a number of factors or forces, especially the current media culture that not only relays information but also interprets it for the receiver. As I have argued:
Students and practitioners in urban sociology are simultaneously blessed and cursed with competing theories and methods for describing the post-modern, post-industrial metropolitan urban scene. But throughout all the theoretical, methodological, and ideological questions characterizing the field, the central organizing construct for urban studies has remained, in one form or another, “space”. Therefore, explaining how these real and imagined spaces are used, contested, and transformed by different social groups remains the crucial task. As sciences are described in terms of their ability to produce cumulative knowledge, something is sorely needed to tie together so many disparate threads. One may also inadvertently notice how often proponents of competing perspectives echo one another but without acknowledging the voice of the “other”. (2014SCC?: 17)
As to my favorite subject of ethnic enclaves, I have argued that no historical model can adequately represent their multiple realities as there are too many permutations and combinations of variables such as generation, class, and location. Therefore, I suggested visual and semiotic approaches to help understand the structural and cultural realities of both ethnically authentic and themed spaces. Little Italies and Chinatowns are not merely demographic entities, but what Lefebvre called “representations of spaces” as well as “spaces of representation. (1991)
I have written of and photographed many contestable versions of Italian America. By employing professional biographical narration, and employing various symbolic and semiotic theories to challenge the scholarly opinion that Italian Americans have little claim to ethnic “authenticity.” As to “Interpretation” I have offered a theory that emphasizes the sociological verstehen method pioneered by Max Weber to fit the sub-field of “Heritage Interpretation” that is presented to museum visitors, and other consumers of “authentic” ethnic cultures. Society is a dependent shared “text,” and my texts are visual images, thousands of photographs taken in iconic Little Italies around the world that I have presented as to their claims of authentic Italianità. These, what I call
“Ethnic Disneylands” or “Ethnic Theme Parks,” are for many observers appropriate theatrical stages for the presentation of the “Italian Look.” Given the agency that we all have, readers/viewers can make their own interpretation.
In agreement with De Certeau, Blonsky, and Sennett, I have argued that in order to experience authentic social life all one has to do is come out down from one’s more or less ivory tower and take a walk, with me around any Little Italy. There we can look at the places and spaces created by the ordinary people who live, work, and shop there and in the process provide us with multiple, often marvelously contradictory, presentations of the “Italian Look.”
My photographs are usually presented with little in the way of captions as not to distract from the claim of authenticity that is made by the image of a place and space that in an earlier turn has made its own similar claim about which the image speaks. It must be emphasized that the possible captions provided by me might be different if written instead by those who accompanied me on the excursion, or by Michel de Certeau, Roland Barthes, Richard Sennett or Jean Baudrillard for that matter. A few photographs of more and less well-known Littles come at the end of this essay.
Little Italy as a Baudrillardesque Spatial Semiotic..
In my study of urban neighborhoods, I have tried to maintain the edge of my own Sociological Imagination; “…a quality of mind that seems most dramatically to promise an understanding of the intimate realities of ourselves in connection with larger social realities.” (Mills, 1959:15) Like all real and imagined ethnic neighborhoods, Little Italy is a product and source of both social and cultural capital. Although the ordinary people who live in them ultimately are at the mercy of distant forces, in their naivete they continue to create and modify local spaces allocated to them. In spite of and because of their efforts they become part of the urban landscape. Urban residents and the spaces they inhabit become symbols. Ironically, they come to represent themselves and thereby lose their autonomy as the enclave comes to symbolize its imagined inhabitants and stands for them independent of their residence in it. Localized reproductions of cultural spaces can also be easily commodified. For example, The expropriated cultural capital of the Italian American vernacular such as resistance to diversity, cultural insularity, and perhaps even racial intolerance becomes a sales point in real estate parlance as a quaint “safe” neighborhood, with “old world charm”, and romantically symbolizing the “way it used to be”. In almost every Italian neighborhood I have researched and photographed I have either been led to, or discovered on my own, a local bocce court. At another level, this particular physical space and the people, especially old people, playing within it is a common semiotic for Italians and their urban neighborhoods. I have a small collection of photographs of bocce courts that are used to illustrate the written texts about Italian neighborhoods that appear in newspapers and magazines. As to media attention, Italian enclaves are generally featured in local periodicals around October 12th (Columbus Day), or stories about organized crime.
Because there are too many permutations and combinations of variables such as generation, class, and location, no historical model can adequately represent the multiple realities of any ethnic-America. However, I have attempted to show how Little Italy speaks to the idea of Italian America and how a visual sociological approach can add to our understanding of its structural and cultural realities.
Idealized ethnic urban spaces are “Representations of Spaces” as well as “Spaces of Representation”. I have termed them: Oblivion, Ruination, Ethnic Theme Parks, Immigration Museums, and Anthropological Gardens. (Krase, 1997)
- “Oblivion means “the state of being forgotten.” Every day thousands of trucks and cars drive through spaces which once contained vital and vibrant Italian American neighborhoods in major cities such as Boston, Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco.
- Ruins. Nostalgia for the rubble of ancient Rome or Pompeii is no match for that of the stores, businesses, and homes in Italian American neighborhoods abandoned in anticipation of “renewal”, cleared of misnamed “slums”-, and still awaiting new uses.
- Ethnic Theme Parks. Despite displacement of most of the “natives” the most famous of American Little Italies are preserved as spectacles for the appreciation of tourists, and the streetscapes which are used by film crews shooting “locations” for Mafia movies. Manhattan’s Mulberry Street, and the world-famous Feast of San Gennaro takes place in an Asian neighborhood decorated with “Italian” store fronts, street furniture, and outdoor cafes where restaurateurs recruit “swarthy” waiters from Latino communities. A few ethnically sympathetic vendors might attempt to recreate Italian markets, but many are more likely unashamedly hawk “Kiss Me I’m Italian” buttons, ethnically offensive, or inoffensive, bumper stickers, miniature Italian flags, and almost anything else in red, white and green.
Most Theme Parks contain (4.) Assimilation Museums and (5.) Anthropological Gardens. Assimilation Museums are places for the preservation and display of inanimate objects whereas Anthropological Gardens (Human Zoos) are places where the subjects of curiosity are maintained in their live state. In Assimilation Museums we find Memorabilia Exhibits, Archives, and Galleries run by groups devoted to the “Preservation of OUR Ethnic Heritage”, ubiquitous monuments to Christopher Columbus, homes of the famous such as mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and the more infamous, like Al Capone.
Anthropological Gardens are usually crisscrossed by Naples Streets and Columbus Avenues. There one can observe “Local Italians” at memorial bocce courts, senior citizen centers, and social clubs. Video journalists use them as repositories for on-camera interviews about organized crime. Those left behind are the keepers of the tradition who can tell you how it was in the “good old days” in the old neighborhoods. (104-5). (2014: 34-36)
At the turn of the twentieth century, American cities contained settlements, mostly of European immigrants, for example, in the form of Pole Towns and Jew Towns, with a smattering of Chinatowns. Today, at the turn of the twenty-first century one is more likely to discover those of newcomers from Asia and the Southern Hemisphere such as Koreatowns, Little Bombay’s, perhaps a Little Lagos, and a wide assortment of Barrios.
Across the vast American landscape there are many different versions of cultural and historical commodification the most familiar are “wild western” cattle, mining and lively ghost towns. In some states, tourists are offered visits to Native American reservations to view performances or simply buy local handicrafts. There are also numerous recreated and preserved settlements that pay some sort of homage to American history such as Colonial Williamsburg living history museum in Virginia replete with historical interpreters and character actors. The Amish found in “Pennsylvania Dutch Country” and the similar American places that these simple folks have settled have also been used by entrepreneurs to tap into the pockets of the curious.
As Much as Mike Davis (2001) might like to celebrate Latino cultural agency in Los Angeles, their Latinidad is also hardly immune to trivialization and commodification. In downtown Los Angeles across the street from Union Station is the location of the historic El Pueblo de Los Angeles, that is currently re-presented as a Mexican Ethnic Theme Park called “Olvera Street” consisting of a faux Mexican market place with ethnically appropriate shops, restaurants and museums. According to every tourist guide, Los Angeles also offers other more and less authentic enclaves such as “Ramen Row” in Little Tokyo that attracts suburbanized Japanese Americans by offering Buddhist temples, shops, restaurants, taverns, and the Japanese American National Museum.
Baudrillard and More and Less current Politics
Trying to finish this essay on Election Day 2020 in the USA, I could not ignore Baudrillard’s prescience as to the The End of US Power.
The fifties were the real high spot for the US (‘when things were going on’), and you can still feel the nostalgia for those years, for the ecstasy of power, when power held power. In the seventies power was still there, but the spell was broken. That was orgy time (war, sex, Manson, Woodstock). Today the orgy is over. The US, like everyone else, now has to face up to a soft world order, a soft situation. Power has become impotent. But if America is now no longer the monopolistic centre of world power, this is not because it has lost power, but simply because there is no centre any more. It has, rather, become the orbit of an imaginary power to which everyone now refers.
… America has retained power, both political and cultural, but it is now power as a special effect. In the image of Reagan, the whole of America has become Californian. Exactor and ex-governor of California that he is, he has worked up his euphoric, cinematic, extraverted, advertising vision of the artificial paradises of the West to all-American dimensions. (2011: 103-104)
In Reagan, a system of values that was formerly effective turns into something ideal and imaginary. The image of America becomes imaginary for Americans themselves, at a point when it is without doubt profoundly compromised. This transformation of spontaneous confidence into paradoxical confidence and an achieved Utopia into an imaginary hyperbole seems to me to mark a decisive turning-point. But doubtless things are not this simple. For I am not saying that the image of America is deeply altered in the eyes of the Americans themselves. I am not saying that this change of direction in the Reagan era is anything other than an incidental development. Who knows?
You have the same difficulty today distinguishing between a process and its simulation, for example between a flight and a flight simulation. America, too, has entered this era of undecidability: is it still really powerful or merely simulating power? (109)
The morning after the US Presidential election in 2016 I gave the Keynote Address for the Fieldwork Photography Symposium at the University of Central Lancaster, in Preston UK. I began my talk by anticipating the questions that would be asked of me at the first coffee break, by saying “Yesterday a battle in the USA took place between Whore of Babylon and the Anti-Christ, and the Anti-Christ won.” Four years later, we have a subsequent simulation, this time of hyperreal masculinities where, according to Jessica Bennet, in the “Politics of Manliness,” it is “the tough guy” versus “the nice guy”.
On the one extreme is President Trump, who leaves little subtlety in his approach: Bragging about his sexual prowess, along with the size of his nuclear button, proclaiming “domination” over coronavirus and mocking his opponent for the size of his mask (“the biggest mask I’ve ever seen”), as if mask-wearing is somehow weak. … On the other end of the spectrum, or perhaps somewhere in the middle, is Mr. Biden, a “Dad-like” figure, as the philosopher Kate Manne put it, who has vowed to be America’s protector through a dark period, with some combination of strength, empathy and compassion. (Bennet 2020)
In the same paper, Julie Bosman reports on a semiotic Presidential battle raging where “Signs Get Snatched, Kicked, Burned as Political Battle Reaches the Front Lawn.” (2020)
In Illinois, Florida and Arizona, police officers have been summoned to investigate Biden signs set ablaze and Trump flags swiped in the night. Homeowners, angry over their campaign signs disappearing, have set up elaborate motion-activated cameras to catch the culprits. A sneaky few have booby-trapped signs with sharp razor blades glinting underneath. ..“There’s just a lot of bad feelings now, and this is what it comes to,” said Annie Phillips, 82, a retired educator in suburban Seattle who had two Biden signs stolen from her front yard. “I’m holding my breath until the election is settled.” Fed up after her second sign was taken, Ms. Phillips bought a third one and nailed it to her garage door.
The only thing we can be certain of after this simulation of electoral democracy is over, is that Jean Baudrillard would have written a scintillating essay about it, and we would spend a great deal of time deciphering hyper-and not-so-hyper-reality of it.
A Few Little Italies
Figure 1. Southeast Baltimore, Maryland, 2016
Figure 2. North End, Boston, Massachusetts, 2018
Figure 3. Near West Side Chicago, Illinois, 2019
Figure 4. Belmont, The Bronx, New York, 2016
Figure 5. Mulberry Street, Manhattan, New York, 2016
Figure 6. Wooster Street, New Haven, Connecticut, 2016
Figure 7. Federal Hill, Providence, Rhode Island, 2010
Figure 8. Bella Vista, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2018
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