Democracy repeatedly sabotaged in heritage, arts and cultural planning

Sabotage – to destroy, damage or disrupt, especially by secret means.

Parramatta Council has published a cultural discussion paper and is inviting community responses by April 7. Culture and Our City – a cultural discussion paper for Parramatta’s CBD is seeking feedback and ideas to contribute to a new cultural plan. I urge you to read it and respond. The plan is intended to guide arts and cultural directions, over the next five years and beyond. Somewhat unexpectedly, I found myself reacting with anger and frustration. Yes, I had been a willing participant in a focus group for the discussion paper, but my frustration was not with the research or the principles articulated in the draft.

Bear with me, this requires some explanation.

The research was commissioned by the new City of Parramatta Council, which is administered by an appointee of the NSW Government. There will be no democratically elected council until September, by which time the state government will have run the show since May 2016. No government would allow the release of a document in its name without its approval and authorisation and it shows in this one. The parameters of the research are restricted to Parramatta’s CBD and do not include the rest of Parramatta’s local government area, including the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct. For almost 70 years, the Parramatta community has been tantalised with promises of cultural opportunity and then betrayed more often than not in their implementation.

According to the 1948 County of Cumberland Scheme released by the NSW Government, Parramatta was to be the most important centre after Sydney. The only drawback at the time was the lack of adequate cultural facilities in Parramatta. I was an active part of a push that led to the opening of Riverside Theatres in Parramatta in 1988, above (Sydney Festival 17 photo), but still there was no gallery. Then the state government, under Labor Premier Bob Carr, invited artists and community members to discussion groups in the late 1990s about the future of the Cumberland Hospital site, now described as the North Parramatta or Fleet Street Heritage Precinct. Opportunities were sketched for future artists studios, music and dance rehearsal spaces, heritage and community facilities – and on the outskirts – medium density residential development – not unlike current proposals by North Parramatta Residents Action Group.

Nothing more was heard until Parramatta Council released its Arts Facilities & Cultural Places Framework (2005) – Parramatta: Identity, Contemporary Culture & Prosperity. “The Parramatta Arts Facilities & Cultural Places Framework 2005,” it said, “will assist Council in establishing a clear direction for the planning, the provision and resourcing of a broad range of arts infrastructure & cultural places for the City over the next ten years. The vitality of Parramatta comes down to establishing cultural assets with a point of difference, that are unique, reflect the community and complement rather than replicate the rest of Sydney’s cultural resources. The City must also build its cultural identity and creative industries to attract, retain, validate, and acknowledge the role of artists in our community, as well as to generate new wealth and prosperity for Parramatta.”

Then Lord Mayor of Parramatta, David Borger, was the political champion of this framework, and officiated at the opening of Parramatta Artists Studios – the foundation component of the framework, where production has continued to flourish. The framework stated there would be three sites for the placement of facilities –

Cluster 1 Venue—Civic Place (the administrative heart of the CBD)

Cluster 2 Venue—Old Kings School (on the bank of Parramatta River and across the road from Riverside Theatres)

Cluster 3 Venue—North Parramatta Mixed Use Site (i.e. North Parramatta Heritage Precinct)
Twelve years later, not one of these facilities has been achieved. The first was not so much a matter of the state government as a fierce struggle between council, landholders and developers. Civic Place, now known as Parramatta Square, left (artist’s impression), is finally under construction, but there is no mention of a major gallery or exhibition space. This is primarily the council’s responsibility.
Determined advocacy by artists, the Western Sydney Arts Lobby and proposals for adaptations of the Old King’s School buildings, continued right up to the March state election in 2011. Then a week before the election, Labor Premier Kristina Keneally announced $24.6 million for the refurbishment and transformation of the heritage buildings into galleries and spaces for arts groups – intended for regional and not just local use, see photo below. The government was defeated and after six months the new Liberal/National Party Government failed to allocate funding and claimed it was an unfunded election promise. In 2015, the government announced the precinct would become a primary school, which is now under construction.
In the meantime, the state government announced the decision to subdivide and sell much of the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct for high rise development.  It claims the sale of one of Australia’s most important historic sites is the only way it can finance preservation of its heritage. A framework masterplan was to be developed by the government agency UrbanGrowth NSW. Local residents were appalled. Many of them lived close by in a Parramatta Council heritage listed zone and by 2013 were banding together in protest. One of them explains their distress, with relevant links:
“There are over 10 conservation areas in Parramatta district and these all have residents. The contradictions between what’s supported and allowed for property developers and for those who are resident in the conservation areas affects more people than just those adjacent to the high density/high rise planned in what’s called the ‘Parramatta North Urban Transformation’. List of conservation areas link. Link to straightforward map of North Parramatta Conservation Area (there are 2 parts of this one area). This map is worth a close look.  The current North Parramatta Heritage area between  O’Connell and Villiers St is very close to 90,000 sq metres in size.

“Regulations governing what can be done by property owners are in the Parramatta Local Environmental Plan 2011   (Current version for 23 September 2016 to date Part 5 Clause 5.10) Parramatta LEP requires owners to organise and pay for all archaeological surveys prior to submitting DAs for approval and construction of a simple garage or shed on their land as it is in a conservation area where it is anticipated features/items of archaeological significance can be found in the land.  Surveys have not been done of the entire conservation area so it falls to each individual to do instance-by-instance. (We can’t even dig a vegetable bed.)

“The inequity and hypocrisy around the different circumstances of those in conservation areas compared to property developers who plan to profit from high rise development in recent rezoning/planning is stark.”

In June 2014, then NSW Premier Mike Baird announced a cultural ambassador for western Sydney, Liz Ann Macgregor, left, the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA). For many years, under her leadership, the MCA has worked closely with a “terrific network of galleries, organisations and artists in Western Sydney doing innovative and highly engaging work.” She was keen to bring their work to closer government attention. She was also keen to bring the services of Sydney museums and galleries to the west. In February 2015, Mike Baird announced the sale of the Powerhouse Museum at Darling Harbour and its relocation to Parramatta. To many it was seen merely as a land grab for developers and resistance by Save the Powerhouse supporters was fierce.

Nonetheless, the Powerhouse move was seen by others as symbolic of the state government’s commitment to western Sydney and enthusiastically embraced by David Borger, now the Western Sydney director of the Sydney Business Chamber, and other civic leaders and, more cautiously, by the Western Sydney Arts Lobby. Anything, after all, was better than nothing. Later that year a Deloitte report, commissioned by Sydney Business Chamber – Western Sydney, and three western Sydney councils – Parramatta, Penrith and Liverpool, Building Western Sydney’s Cultural Economy – A Key to Sydney’s Success, recommended relocation of the Powerhouse Museum to western Sydney.

Since then, there has been much debate about what funds the sale of the Darling Harbour site, left, would actually generate, the cost of relocation and whether Parramatta Council should simply donate the announced new site, it already owns, on the banks of the Parramatta River. The current fiasco over the state government’s authorisation of demolition of the city’s main swimming pool to make way for the expansion of a sports stadium is a guide to what may come. Parramatta Council acquiesced without protest, before the administrator was appointed last year. No financial compensation has been made for the loss of the popular pool and no state funds committed to the building of a new one. A new aquatic centre is said to be two to five years away. Sabotage of community interests now seems standard practice.

A year ago, exchange visits between Save the Powerhouse Museum and NPRAG members led to mutual support for each other’s positions and SPM supporting a proposal for a museum unique to Parramatta and the region. The visitors were gobsmacked by the volume and evidence of Australia’s colonial history in the Fleet Street Heritage Precinct and the site’s treasury of thousands of years of Aboriginal custodianship.

Last October, Liz-Ann McGregor was the guest speaker at a Western Sydney University event – the launch of a Bachelor of Creative Industries. The new degree combines majoring in a chosen field within the creative industries, with minors in business management and law. Liz Ann spoke in the presence of WSU Vice-Chancellor Professor Barney Glover, who was also the newly appointed president of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) Trust. The trust will play a pivotal role in the Powerhouse’s relocation to Parramatta (see artist’s impression). She spoke of the current dispiriting atmosphere that surrounds financial support for the arts at state and federal levels and internationally and the likelihood of little change in the foreseeable future. She spoke of her own frustration when arguing with ministers for better support for western Sydney and meeting with a wall of resistance.
In this climate, a long term project like MCA’s C3West offers a model of alternative approaches that have been bringing artists, businesses and community together for more than a decade. A course like the new Bachelor of Creative Industries can equip artists with the financial and marketing skills to enter into these relationships. It takes a long time for artists and business to learn to talk each other’s language, she said. It’s a slow process, but artists can often articulate issues and offer possible solutions.
Under Suzette Meade’s leadership North Parramatta Residents Action Group has been listening to community and working with other organisations to develop an economically viable alternative proposal for the Fleet Street Precinct. They want genuine community consultation. Their supporters and collaborators number in the thousands, but neither state government nor Parramatta Council are really listening.
Is it any wonder she wrote to Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore last week appealing for her help? In a neat summary Elizabeth Farrelly wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald

“This week, when North Parramatta Residents’ Action Group begged Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore to “adopt the community of Parramatta, as we are left without a democratically elected council” there certainly was envy. It was the envy of people deliberately disenfranchised at a moment of great change, people gazing wistfully at a place where local government is strong, free and fair. It was an “I’ll have what she’s having” moment.This envy is entirely justified.

“Parramatta is reeling from a governelopment boom: 3000 apartments on its irreplaceable heritage precinct (Cumberland Hospital, 1818 Female Factory); the $2 billion ultra-ugly Parramatta Square project behind the old town hall; the proposed new Powerhouse, or whatever fragment of it finally drifts up-river; the demolition of the Pirtek Stadium and pool for a bigger, more lucrative stadium (no pool); plus masses of private development like Meriton’s 54-storey Altitude, the city’s tallest tower, on the old David Jones site. Barely a squeak of affordable housing anywhere, and the people held voiceless, all the while, by a government-appointed city administrator.”

It makes better sense to create a cultural hub celebrating indigenous and migration history (NPRAG’s Artist’s impression in their Alternative Vision, above)

I’m off for three weeks to New Zealand. Family members there tell me local governments are guided by democratically elected advisory committees and it is one of the world’s most democratic countries. Now there’s an idea!

Despite the setbacks, Parramatta heritage is on a winning streak

NPRAG members Brett Evans and Inara MolinariThe chance that North Parramatta heritage might be rescued from rampant development sponsored by the NSW Government is increasing by the minute. Federal Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt has just announced a two year assessment of the Parramatta Female Factory precinct for National Heritage listing, click here. The campaign to collect 10,000 signatures on a petition to force a debate about the future of North Parramatta in the NSW Parliament is within striking distance of its goal. NPRAG members, Brett Evans and Inara Molinari, right, are collecting signatures today at Parramatta Farmers Market.

• You can sign the petition here
• Scan a copy of your completed petition to NPRAG at
• Post the original copy (required by Parliament) to the address listed on the petition ASAP

After many years of campaigning by disparate groups, the threat posed by the NSW Government to the nation’s heritage has mobilised all these forces to activate a national Parramatta Female Factory - c1826 - Augustus Earleand coordinated campaign. It is still gathering momentum. First there was the arrant nonsense of “community consultation” launched in November 2013 by the government’s development arm UrbanGrowth NSW. In only six months the consultations apparently moved from a blank slate to an outline plan for 4,000 new apartments on 31 hectares of land. The only option for those being “consulted” was where to place the proposed new buildings – some up to 30 storeys high. There seemed little relationship to the community’s stated priorities during “consultations” of heritage protection, adaptive reuse for commemorative and creative purposes, and environmental sustainability. Above, Augustus Earle’s depiction of the Parramatta Female Factory c1826.

Then there was the release of the draft master plan on December 19, 2014, just before Christmas, with only three weeks in which to respond. This absurdity only fueled community anger at the impossibility of analysing thousands of pages of proposals. A few dedicated souls did. The only response initially to alarm at the lack of any heritage conservation masterplan seemed to be “Trust me, I’m a politician – of course we will protect the heritage, after we have raised the funds from selling the land.” It didn’t go down well. Use this blog’s search facility (top right hand corner above the blog title), “Parramatta Female Factory”, if you want more information about actions to date.

1-IMG_4086You don’t have to look any further than another part of the Parramatta local government area for an excellent model of what can happen when a major heritage site is treated respectfully. On the Parramatta campus of the University of Western Sydney, historic buildings are conserved and thoughtful designs allow for adaptation and effective re-use. Right, the Female Orphan School, opened in 1813, and was designed by Governor Macquarie’s wife Elizabeth, with convict architect Francis Greenway. The pair also worked on designs for the Parramatta Female Factory and St John’s Church, Parramatta.

1-IMG_4085Restoration of the orphan school took more than a decade and reopened in 2013 as the Whitllam Institute and art galleries. Left is the interior of the entrance hall, where a modern staircase follows the outline of much earlier stairs and exposed original wall surfaces reveal something of its previous usage. The Female Orphan School is not to be confused with the Roman Catholic Orphan School in the North Parramatta precinct, which opened in 1844. Church authorities were concerned that children, especially of Irish convict women, were not receiving the church education deemed desirable through the Protestant run Female Orphan School.

1-IMG_4059There are many neglected buildings in the North Parramatta heritage precinct, which were designed by NSW Government architect Walter Liberty Vernon, including a former laundry, right, hospital wards and admission centre. By contrast, Vernon buildings on the university campus, have been carefully restored. They represented the philosophic change in psychiatric care, when they were part of Rydalmere Hospital for the Insane, 1888 to 1985,

1-IMG_4076The Vernon Buildings now house the university’s School of Business, left, and a heritage marker notifies the Vernon Building Heritage Walk, with informative graphics and background notes. There are many other similar markers throughout the grounds. The former boiler house and steam laundry were destroyed by fire in the years between vacating the hospital and the establishment of the university campus in 1995. But they are the foundation of a contemporary Boiler House Restaurant and Cafe, below, and remnants of the boiler mechanism provide dramatic sculptures in the grounds.

1-IMG_4079The university offers many opportunities for the general public, as well as students and staff, to visit the site and familiarise themselves with its history or participate in events. You can find a self-guided Parramatta Campus Heritage Walk by clicking here and further information by exploring the website. The Boiler House restaurant and cafe overlooked the colorful stalls of Student Clubs Week, right, which ended yesterday.

It is just under 18 months since this blog was first published. Last week it passed the milestone of more than 10,000 views. Most have been from Australia, but it has attracted views from many different countries around the world.

Passion for justice and “coming to voice” drives Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s work

Michael Mohammed AhmadAs a Bankstown boy of Lebanese Muslim background, Michael Mohammed Ahmad was profoundly affected by the media frenzy that broke out in 2000 following the Skaf gang rapes in south western Sydney. The savagery of sterotyping about young Muslim men, Lebanese and Arab Australians and western Sydney had a widespread negative impact on other young men like himself. While not denying the awfulness of the crimes, Mohammed concluded that the only way to counter such unfair labelling, was to develop strong and confident local voices who could tell their own stories to a wide audience.

Bankstown Youth Development Service, under the leadership of Tim Carroll, gave him the opportunity to develop his passion for writing and the promotion of literacy and critical thinking among local young people. Under BYDS’ auspice, Mohammed initiated and ran Westside Publications as chief editor and coordinator from June 2005 to February 2013. In 2012, he won the Australia Council’s Kirk Robson Award in recognition of his leadership in community arts and cultural development. From this emerged Sweatshop – Western Sydney Literacy Movement, now based at the Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney, Bankstown campus, where Mohammed is a doctoral candidate.

Sweatshop team - UWSThe university website says, “Facilitated by local literacy artists, PhD candidates and UWS graduates, Sweatshop visits local schools to run workshops and activities, and also produces publications, literary events and performances to showcase the work of local writers and artists. Mr Ahmad has been working with Western Sydney communities through literacy for the past 10 years and over this time has worked with more than 10,000 young people to develop reading, writing and communication skills in local schools.”

It’s a pretty impressive achievement. At times, Mohammed’s style is abrasive and confronting. His studies have led him to the work of bell hooks, the African-American feminist scholar. In her book, Talking Back, hooks uses the term “coming to voice” – an act of moving from silence to speech as revolutionary gesture. “We are coming to voice”, he says.

“This agenda has inspired much of my own work. I have been fascinated by the experience of being from both western Sydney and being of a Lebanese-Australian Muslim-Alawite background. My fascination has not been in the stereotypical, limited and often demonising way that we’ve seen it done so far, but rather in the honest and complex way that it unfolds in my life.”

OneThe Tribe - cover result is his first book of fiction published earlier this year by Giramondo. Its style is gentler. The Tribe, opens with a vivid description of the recollections of his protagonist as a seven year old, sitting close to his grandmother. His Tayta points to the scars on her expansive belly and tells him how they mark the birth of each of her children. Thus we meet the members of Bani’s family and begin to discover the individuals who make up three generations and the complexities of relationships throughout the extended family. It’s not quite a cast of thousands, but the connections are multiple and complex. The loyalties and antagonisms  existing in a tight knit community bound by tradition are vividly illustrated. Reviews in The Daily Telegraph and the blog The Lifted Brow offer contrasting and illuminating commentary.

Last week, in collaboration with Seizure Literary Journal, Sweatshop published a new anthology Stories of Sydney. Stories from 15 writers focus on place. All have been developed and intensively workshopped since 2013. Five come from inner Sydney and 10 from western Sydney. It is both a printed book and an e-book. During term four a series of writing workshops and residencies in schools will be held, with the aim of exploring difference across Sydney through storytelling.



Three events celebrate Aboriginal culture and achievement

Only one of these events may have been planned for NAIDOC Week 2014, but three  certainly coincide to recognise Aboriginal culture and achievement.

1-Wagana - Bangalang - BMCC - 0614The first is the presentation of Bangalang, by five young members of Wagana Aboriginal Dancers, who depart for the Commonwealth Youth Dance Festival, in Glasgow, on Friday, July 4. Their performance of Bangalang, a Wiradjuri word for autumn, was presented to an appreciative audience at Blue Mountains Cultural Centre last Sunday. Bangalang was choreographed by their teacher and mentor Jo Clancy, in collaboration with Becky Chatfield, with music and song by Jacinta Tobin.

Following their invitation to participate in the festival, Wagana members spent more than a year raising the $35,000 needed to deliver their team to Glasgow. In fact they exceeded their target by another $5000, which enabled them to fund beautiful costumes and props like the emu puppet heads seen in the photo. While each participating country is limited to a maximum seven minute performance, their days will be spent in workshops run by the other countries, with performances each evening. The Wagana dancers are thrilled with the global cultural experiences and networking opportunities offered by the festival.

1-The Life of Riley 0614Another event gaining attention in NAIDOC Week is the launch  of Christina Green’s book The Life of Riley. As a three year old child, Christina (then Riley) was taken from her Wiradjuri family into foster care. Following a series of horrendous experiences, she was then detained as an 12 year old, charged with her own neglect, in the notorious Parramatta Girls Home. From there she survived three periods of incarceration in the old Hay Gaol. In recent years, as survivors of the Parramatta Girls Home have come together to seek healing, she has worked with fellow Parragirl Bonney Djuric to ensure the future of the home and the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct as an international Site of Conscience.

The Life of Riley is Chris’s own life story pieced together during 25 years as she struggled to understand what had happened to her and why. Although a record of crushing privation and loss, it is also an extraordinary story of survival, spiritual strength and great wisdom. The Life of Riley, by Christina Green, $24.90, Paypal – email Leave a message including your name and postal address. Purchased books will be delivered in 5 – 7 days.

An alternative payment method is through direct deposit:
Westpac bank
Christina Green
Bsb – 732 183
Acc – 596 014
Please note when purchasing The Life of Riley to message Chris through Facebook with your name and address and the book will be in the mail with your receipt delivered within 5-7 days.

1-Brendan Penzer - Wirnda Barna ArtistsFrom mid-west WA’s Upper Murchison region comes news of the third event, Wirnda Barna Aboriginal artists and their exhibition Drawing a Line in the Sand, at Hazlehurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre, Gymea, in Sydney’s southern suburbs. The link with western Sydney is the manager at Wirnda Barna Artists, Brendan Penzer. Brendan is a visual arts and social ecology graduate from University of Western Sydney, where he conducted much of his research. Drawing a Line in the Sand continues at Hazlehurst Gallery until July 8. It will be great to have more news of Brendan and Wirnda Barna artists.

Stop blaming locals for government dysfunction

Out West cover 1993 - Blog“The western suburbs still get a raw deal and the locals are blamed for the consequences.” This quotation from a local resident’s letter appeared on the cover of Diane Powell’s 1993 book Out West – Perceptions of Sydney’s western suburbs, Allen & Unwin. Little has apparently changed for in February 2014, NSW Minister Pru Goward’s suggested that “the solution to perceived problems of welfare dependency involved the threat to deprive people of their homes”, as reported by Virginia Baxter.

The careless injustice of such a suggestion stirred Virginia to write a recent story A community fights back, in the February/March 2014 issue of real time the free print and online publication described as a critical guide to the art of now.

“Bidwill was the location for FUNPARK, one of Sydney Festival’s projects in western Sydney. Creative director Karen Therese, herself a sometime local, brought together a team of city and western Sydney artists with indigenous and other elders to celebrate what is, contrary to reports, a vibrant local community,” she writes. Virginia describes some of the events created and performed by local people with the support of experienced artists – The Mt Druitt Press Conference presented by a group of “confident, socially engaged and talented” young people, Bunny Hoopster and her team of Hoopaholics, young Aboriginal dancers and choristers and the raucus “rock opera” Girls Light Up, mocking the grossly media sensationalised Bidwill “riot” of 1981.

Running in parallel wBidwell hoopsters 0114ere the Harley Davidson Wild Trike rides, a large tent in the centre of the car park, where Darug elders discussed the history of the area and their concerns about education opportunities for younger members, Cuppa Tea with Therese, a local Housing NSW resident who has been deeply involved in her community for many years, and the Occult of Bidwill tour, where local Uniting Church Minister John Dacey highlighted some of the “‘hidden’ instances of misguided bureaucracy”, which have led to a steady deterioration in facilities and services available.

Virginia ends her story by saying, “Understandably, many locals see the government as the architects of dysfunction when it comes to some of the recurring issues in this area. Projects like FUNPARK go some way to restoring the community’s faith in itself, giving it the strength to fight the easy stereotyping to imagine all manner of possibilities.”

In the same issue of real time, stories by Keith Gallasch discuss the vision and creative development work of Campbelltown Arts Centre and Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. At Campbelltown, director Michael Dagostino is seeing his long term investment in artists and their development of new work beginning to bear fruit. Campbelltown Arts Centre deals with dance, performance, live art and music, bringing artists together in collaborations, which are as much about exploring the differences in their art forms, as about their similarities.

A primary goal with each of these is to draw many more young people into the centre through engagement with their issues, their politics, and “what’s happening at the moment, to get them to ‘own’ Campbelltown Arts Centre”. Among the many recent projects aimed at connecting the centre with local communities was last year’s second phase of Temporary Democracies – “a live art event set in empty homes in a suburban street undergoing renewal and population change”. It was so successful in breaking down barriers and winning support from the local Men’s Shed, that the men are participating in another project this year – in partnership with the MCA and C3West. They are assisting in building a sculpture inspired by the retrieval of cars from the George’s River.

Robert Love - RiversideAt Riverside Theatres, director Robert Love discusses his plans for the future with Keith Gallasch. Since Robert’s appointment in 2000, Riverside has become a flourishing centre with multiple audiences for mainstream and emerging theatre, contemporary dance, physical theatre, film – both local and international, disability arts, and a wide range of music. He, too, is investing in artists for the long term development of productions, but is frustrated that high costs prevent him from doing more. . . “‘but this year we’re 100% producing Alana Valentine’s Parramatta Girls, which premiered at Belvoir in 2007′, but never played in the city of the story’s origins.”

Robert aims to have a resident performing arts company based at Riverside and servicing Parramatta, western Sydney and regional NSW. There are plans to rebuild the theatres, to add one or two storeys and to create a real community hub.

He shares the disgust of many others in the region at the inadequacy of the state government’s $3 million funding to the arts in western Sydney. The region is home to two million people – almost half of Sydney’s total population and yet the funding is estimated to be only 1% of the total allocated to Sydney central. James Packer’s $30 million to western Sydney over 10 years should be matched by a state government increase to $6 million annually, he argues. And then resurrect the University of Western Sydney’s performing arts courses “and you start up a healthy arts ecosystem.”

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