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The legend of the Watts Towers

I saw the Watts Towers — or a picture of them, at any rate — before I’d heard about them, before I knew what they were. They’re in the background of the photo on Don Cherry’s album Brown Rice (1975): skeletal spires silhouetted against the twilight, with Cherry in the foreground, cradling his trumpet, wearing robes that seem not only pan-African but pan-astral. Taken together, the purple-blue sky, Cherry’s outfit, and these skyrocket towers create the impression that this was the site from which Sun Ra would have chosen to blast off and return to Saturn. Cherry grew up near the towers, after his family moved to Watts, California, from Oklahoma. I’m guessing that he must have known Charles Mingus, who was born in 1922, making him fourteen years Cherry’s senior. In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, Mingus remembers “something strange and mysterious” being built near his home — “what looked like three masts, all different heights, shaped like upside-down ice cream cones” — and how local rowdies would throw rocks at the crazy Italian guy who was doing this construction.

Photographs by Lena Herzog

Photographs by Lena Herzog

When my wife, Rebecca, and I drove over to Watts on a cloudy Saturday, the towers looked, at first, a little smaller than I anticipated. Not in height — the three main ones were tall, elegant, vying with one another for altitude — but in the way they were clustered together, hemmed in. More space between them would have made them airier, less solid-looking. The cramping, I saw as soon as we got out of the car, was the result of a six-foot metal fence around the perimeter of the site. Instead of starting at ground level, the towers began, visually, six feet from the ground, over the top of the fence. Aesthetically, the trick was to keep people out while allowing the sky in; as things were now, the balance — in a place that was partly a celebration of balance — had tipped away from aesthetics toward security. Maybe the weather played a part; unusually, the sky itself was hemmed in by a band of cloud.

We walked around the perimeter, seeing for the first time the intricacy of the structures, the abundance of decoration and ornamentation. On the Brown Rice photo the towers seemed made austerely of metal, but each spar, strand, and tendril was covered with concrete, adorned with glinting colored crockery, green and blue glass, bits of tile.

The only way to get in among the towers is on a guided tour. We bought tickets at the visitor center — appropriately homey rather than fully corporate. The tickets, pinky purple, were like the ones you used to get at cinemas; the guy handing them over was wearing a large black T-shirt that was just about big enough for him. We showed him the Cherry album cover on Rebecca’s phone.

“Oh man, that’s deep,” he said.

We had ten minutes to wait before our tour began, so we went next door to the Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center. I loved the way this place was named after Mingus, the honoring and the legacy. How many times, in London, had I cycled, walked, or taken the bus along Brixton Road, past Max Roach Park? How cool that someone had the gumption to name it after the great drummer rather than one of the English poets: Tennyson Place, Keats Street, Shelley Way — reliable signs, always, that you are entering the world of hard-to-lets and potential threat. Not that Roach’s name made crossing the park to visit a friend who lived in the flats beyond appreciably nicer. Nothing ever happened, but it was always a relief to get to his place, to hear the multiple locks being turned, to see the door opening and then shutting securely behind us again so that we could give ourselves entirely to Speak, Brother, Speak! or Money Jungle.

There were plenty of pictures of Mingus in the center named after him, some album covers and CD cases on display, and an exhibition of artworks, but ten minutes was plenty long enough to take everything in. We walked outside again, and joined the other people on our tour: a dozen or so of us, mainly Europeans, gathered in a semicircle. Our guide, a smiling African-American woman, asked what the most important rule of the visit was going to be.

“Enjoy yourself,” said a man in an already-enjoying-himself Hawaiian shirt.

“Have fun,” said Rebecca, tuning in quickly to the spirit of the place. But no, the main rule was: Do not climb on the towers. Fair enough. You can’t have people clambering all over the towers as if they’re part of an adventure playground, but it was a bit of a downer in the way that prohibitions always are.

In among the tendrils and arches of the towers, we listened to the story of their creator. Sabato Rodia — who for much of his life went by the nickname Sam — was born in Ribottoli, Italy, most likely in 1879, and emigrated to the United States in the 1890s. Sabato settled in Pennsylvania, where he and his brother worked in the coal mines. The brother died in an accident in the mine. Sabato moved to the West Coast, married Lucia Ucci in 1902. They had three children and lived in Seattle, Oakland, and Martinez, California, before the marriage collapsed in 1912. He then worked as a mason and as a construction tiler, lived with another woman named Benita.

HA076__03H90-1In 1921, he bought a triangle-shaped lot here at 1765 East 107th Street in Watts, five miles south of downtown L.A. The lot measured 151 by 69 by 137 feet, and Rodia, at the age of forty-two, began to transform it into his home and his lasting monument. According to some accounts, he started work on the towers to give himself something to do after he quit drinking (though Mingus remembers him “drinking that good red wine from a bottle” as he worked). He lived with a woman named Carmen, who left him sometime in the 1920s. From then on he lived alone, building the towers until 1954, when he gave the property to a neighbor and moved to Martinez to be near his sister. He was seventy-five. The following year the neighbor sold the property to a man named Joseph Montoya, who intended to open what would have been the world’s most spectacularly located taco stand. These plans came to nothing and he sold the property in turn to two film people, Nicholas King (an actor) and William Cartwright (then a student at USC, later an editor), who began the long process of ensuring the survival of the towers.

As the talk about Rodia and his work continued, we shuffled through the site, sometimes on the edges, near the boundary walls, sometimes right by the towers, with their glinting and shining bits of glass and the imprints of the tools he’d used to make them and of anything else that came to hand: cornbread molds, rug beaters, faucet handles. Rodia salvaged and scavenged what he could from where he could — rebar, glass, crockery, bottle bottoms (green for 7-Up or Canada Dry, blue for milk of magnesia), junk that might be left over when everything else of apparent value had already been taken and used. That is the essential contrast: the scale of the undertaking and the modest means of its construction and materials. Klara, in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, is struck by exactly this: “She didn’t know a thing so rucked in the vernacular could have such an epic quality.”

HA076__03H90The towers soared overhead, sturdy, intricate, graceful: science-fictiony, daft, and Gaudí-esque all at once. They were like a forest of trees, linked by concrete creepers but without any umbrella or canopy of leaves. But they were also like inverted and bejeweled corkscrews. Or like . . . The power of the place comes, in part, from the way it’s impossible to put your finger on quite what the towers are or look like. To Klara in Underworld the place seems like “an amusement park, a temple complex and she didn’t know what else. A Delhi bazaar and Italian street feast maybe.” Whatever we come up with, a crucial part of the experience resides in that “what else”: a suggestion of skyrocket, the masts of a triangular ship heading east but becalmed forever in the doldrums of Watts with only wave patterns in the perimeter walls to serve as the sea. The guide took these nautical references as evidence that Rodia’s heart and course were set on Italy, the land he came from, but this was greeted with some mistrust by a white-haired member of our group who spoke for us all.

“How much of this is supposition?” he wanted to know.

It was all a matter of record, our guide insisted, could all be verified by things Rodia had said in interviews either while the towers were being built or after he’d finished, when they began to attract the attention of the world at large. By then they had become mythic, and it is the nature of the mythic that it remains true to itself while subtly adapting to the spoken or unspoken needs of those to whom it appeals, whose hopes it embodies. But the towers’ adaptive capacities are also a proven physical fact. They bend away from the sun, our guide told us, like sunflowers in reverse. This was met with a long silence, a breathing skepticism, but then she explained that it happens because of the thermal expansion of the concrete. The towers leaned away from the sun, their nondenominational appeal causing myriad meanings and associations to flow toward them, unimpeded, free. From them too, as if they were not ship but radio masts, transmitting the sound of which they were the visual embodiment, broadcasting their location, drawing us closer.

Those earlier mentions of Mingus and Cherry were not just circumstantial: in another passage in Underworld, the towers put DeLillo’s narrator in mind of “a kind of swirling free-souled noise, a jazz cathedral.” The improvised nature of the undertaking, of learning in the process of doing and making — of being in the grips of something without necessarily being sure what the outcome will be — seems intrinsic to it. But jazz, in essence, is communal, and by Mingus’s time there was a considerable history and a large body of theory to draw on — or reject. Rodia worked alone, building his intricate and epic solo inch by inch, without the benefit of architectural theory or the support of collaborators like Dannie Richmond or Roland Kirk. What he most wanted from the community — which may have been the motive for buying his plot of land here in Watts — was to be left alone, to go about the business of bringing this thing into an existence that would owe nothing to anyone else, but that would end up being for everyone else.

Actually, the other half of that phrase from Underworld — “cathedral” — is as important as the adjective “jazz.” From certain angles, especially in photographs, the towers loom over the landscape like the shirey spires of English cathedrals in Gloucester or Salisbury. At some point the comparisons fall short, as it were, of the ramshackle magnificence of Rodia’s structures. But the comparisons are helpful because they emphasize the towers’ defining what-elseness. So let’s stick with the cathedrals for a moment and see how they measure up.

HA078__03H90Raymond Williams has spoken of how, though moved by the great English cathedrals, he also sees “the enormous weight of them on man.” He was amazed by the “sheer material effort involved in the production of these buildings, many of them fine churches in stone which have survived from periods in which hardly anybody actually would have had a stone house.” On the one hand, it is “perfectly clear that this was a mode of construction imposed from above.” On the other, the cathedrals suggest the willingness of the people to expend huge amounts, “often under protest but at times of their own will, of productive labour on buildings which had nothing whatever to do with satisfying the physical urgency of survival.” The people doing this were “physically exposed at the very time when they were building shelter for an authority which was not human, which was not of them.”

Rodia worked by day for his means of survival and continued to labor in the evenings and on weekends, working on something that had nothing to do with necessity, survival, or personal gain. He was under no external compulsion and was not collecting any tithe from the community to fund his efforts; neither was he being paid. Naturally, before he worked on his towers he had to make sure he had a house, a shelter for himself. The towers that he went on to create were not designed to shelter any kind of authority. They are an expression of authority — of his authorship — and therefore of his humanity. If that — humanity! — sounds sentimental or lazy, we can go back to another passage from Williams, in his book The Country and the City.

About the spread, in the eighteenth century, of English country houses and the ideas of “heritage” they incarnate, Williams is less ambiguous than he is about cathedrals. Yes, such houses are invariably beautiful, but

think it through as labour and see how long and systematic the exploitation and seizure must have been, to rear that many houses, on that scale. See by contrast what any ancient isolated farm, in uncounted generations of labour, has managed to become, by the efforts of any single real family, however prolonged. And then turn and look at what these other “families,” these systematic owners, have accumulated and arrogantly declared. It isn’t only that you know, looking at the land and then at the house, how much robbery and fraud there must have been, for so long, to produce that degree of disparity, that barbarous disproportion of scale. The working farms and cottages are so small beside them: what men really raise, by their own efforts or by such portion as is left to them, in the ordinary scale of human achievement. What these “great” houses do is to break the scale, by an act of will corresponding to their real and systematic exploitation of others.

Seen in this light the houses become “a visible stamping of power, of displayed wealth and command: a social disproportion which was meant to impress and overawe.”

To read this passage is to be moved still more deeply by Rodia’s towers. First, again in contrast with the cathedrals, because no tax was levied on the surrounding community. Second, because Rodia was able to produce, in his own words, “something big” only by dint of an effort that went so far beyond the scope of “ordinary human achievement.” In its way his effort exists in the same relation to the ordinary as a Beethoven sonata does to someone teaching herself basic tunes on a piano. While Williams has to urge us to view a country house and “think it through as labour” it is impossible to look at Rodia’s towers without thinking of anything other than labor, of the extraordinary work involved in their construction. How else could we regard them? So yes, in certain extraordinary circumstances, what one family — one man — can produce is not “so small” if his hobby consumes his entire life to the extent that there is no room in it for a family. The towers are disproportionately large compared with the surrounding bungalows and railroad tracks, but they do not “break the scale.” They are not a visible stamping of power, still less, in another of Williams’s phrases, “visible triumphs over the ruin and labour of others”; instead, they’re a gift. They don’t make the buildings around them shrink but have served to raise up the surrounding community.

HA079__03H90-1Which makes it still more of a shame that a condition of protecting and conserving the towers is that unclimbable steel fence. The great country houses were designed to be seen and to keep people out. Within Rodia’s modest plot and its low walls the structures were designed to be part of the community. Hence the name he inscribed in them: nuestro pueblo, “our town.” The fence grants the towers a special status that their specialness explicitly rejects. The harm done by this fence does not stop there. At the same time that it annexes off the towers, it shrinks them, reduces their scale. They feel confined, ghettoized. It’s a far cry from the early Sixties, when, as Thom Andersen puts it in the film Los Angeles Plays Itself, “the Watts Towers were the first world’s most accessible, most user-friendly civic monument.” He illustrates his point with nutty footage shot there by Andy Warhol in 1963. It’s impossible to cavort around like that now or even to be photographed in the way that Cherry was. You cannot be photographed next to the Watts Towers; you can only be photographed next to the fence that surrounds them.

Although our tour had started late, it finished on time in order to prevent a knock-on effect of delays. So our visit felt squeezed by time as well as by the security fence. We dragged our feet, took a last few sulky photographs before being marched back to the visitor center.

The fence is doubly frustrating since the essence of the towers is that they are self-contained. Until a certain point, when he was quite high up, Rodia was able to work from within the safety of each tower so that the thing he was building — which grew around him — also served as a safety feature. Beyond that point, as the radius of the spire tightened, he had to step outside the spiraling cage, but no scaffolding was used. The towers were — and remain — scaffolding: a highly decorative exoskeleton for an absent interior. Built with simple tools, with Rodia’s own hands, from basic materials — rebar, steel twisted and bent together without welding, bolts, or rivets — the intimacy and intricacies of their construction are not concealed but laid bare. The sense is of something organic rather than planned: as if blood flowing through one of the main structural arteries ended up going through the smaller decorative radials. Tools used in the towers’ construction — hammers, the head of a garden hose — were imprinted into the wet concrete to form patterns and hieroglyphics. All of which adds to the impression of self-containment. If the towers are temples they are dedicated to their own construction. Our guide told us that the legal limit on their height was a hundred feet. That, she said, is why Rodia brought the tallest of the three spires in at 99.5 feet. She might be right, but Rodia’s story is adorned with sentiment — bits and pieces of good feeling that cling to the legend like the broken bits of crockery and glass that he stuck into the concrete of his towers. Given that the project seemed unfettered by ordinances it is possible that the achieved height created the ceiling beyond which they were officially forbidden to grow. Freed from bureaucratic interference they could implicitly have continued on forever, ad astra, in spite of their foundations’ being less than two feet in depth.

This was one of the reasons why, after Rodia had moved on, the City of Los Angeles condemned his construction as unsafe. Having purchased the property for $3,000 in 1959, Cartwright and King devoted their energies to preventing the demolition of the towers. The campaign for their preservation in the face of the city’s insistence that they be torn down before an earthquake caused them to topple over resulted in a deal and a test. If the structures were able to withstand 10,000 pounds of pressure — the rough equivalent of a seventy-mile-per-hour wind — they would be allowed to stay. On October 10, 1959, cables were attached and force was exerted and increased until — according to the story our guide told us — the cable snapped. When a new and stronger cable was found, either the crane to which it was attached broke or the truck doing the tugging tilted on the axis of its wheels. We were getting into a realm of variant specificity where the facts are adorned so decoratively as to acquire a suggestion of the miraculous. This is either the enemy of truth or the product of insufficient documentation. It is also a highly malleable proof.

A different test of the towers’ ability to withstand potential damage came in August 1965, a few weeks after Rodia had died. During the Watts riots, when the neighborhood was set ablaze, the towers remained untouched and unmarked. This is factually correct, but Rodia didn’t leave Watts and give the towers to a neighbor only because the work was complete: he was tired of battling the city for permits and tired of vandalism. Also, Watts had changed, had, by the early 1960s, become almost exclusively African-American. In Pop L.A., Cécile Whiting writes that Rodia “seems to have envisaged the towers at certain times as a refuge from deteriorating conditions in Watts” and “may have abandoned his home in 1955 because of the changing population around him.” The irony is that after the uprisings, the towers — spectacularly realized symbols of immigrant dreams — became resident totems of African-American cultural expression and aspiration. “In other words, at virtually the same moment as the Watts Towers were preserved as part of the city’s cultural heritage, arguments broke out over whose heritage they represented.” The malleability of the towers was such that they could surmount this perceived schism; their strength was such that they could hold competing claims together like rope in a tug-of-love. Within a year of the uprising, they had become, according to a reporter for the New York Times — Thomas Pynchon, no less — a “dream of how things should have been.” The tense is crucial. Not how things might or will be in the future but, with more than a touch of regret — even of nostalgia — “should have been.” It’s almost a corollary of the way that the towers are always putting one in mind of something else: whatever one says always needs qualifying. Even loyal admirers would not claim them as an unqualified masterpiece. Unless . . .

We are familiar with the idea that a work of art is never completed, only abandoned, but Rodia would seem to have abandoned his towers at their moment of completion. The moment of their completion was also the moment at which he was completed by his life’s work. In another sense they are constantly being completed or fulfilled — by things like the Cherry album cover, by the visitors who come from all over the world, by the festivals that take place here each year. (Explanatory panels on the fence stress the importance of the Festa dei Gigli, held in Nola, Italy: “The Watts Towers resemble the icons used in the festival so closely that they are considered a likely inspiration for his work.”) Repairs have been needed, but the surprising durability of the original work was further enhanced and authenticated when it became apparent that, over the years, it was the repairs that needed repairing. The towers were more robust than the means employed to preserve them. Their capacity to create legends about themselves was self-generating and inexhaustible.

The wayward greatness of the towers — resolutely local and eccentrically universal — and the scale of Rodia’s achievement were attested to by admirers such as Buckminster Fuller and Jacob Bronowski. Whether or not Rodia created a work of art is another question. Or at least the question “Is it a work of art?” brings with it another: what kind of work of art might it be? There is the tacit belief here that to be a work of art is the ultimate proof of value (and more demanding than the force exerted by the stress test), but one of the functions of the towers might be to resist or undermine this idea — to question the legitimacy of the question being posed. Maybe the towers are more than a work of art. Maybe the idea of art is not an adequate gauge by which to measure this kind of achievement.

The towers are unique, but as a phenomenon of determined, self-sufficient creation on an epic scale, they are neither unprecedented nor unequaled. John Berger has written about one such endeavor: “A palace passing all imagination,” as the postman Ferdinand Cheval termed his creation in Hauterives, in the department of Drôme, in France. Cheval (1836–1924) worked for thirty-four years single-handedly building and sculpting his ideal palace. “This work is naked and without tradition,” writes Berger, “because it is the work of a single ‘mad’ peasant.” Viewed from Watts, however, the existence of Cheval’s palace means that there might be a tradition after all, even if it’s a scattered and meager one. That Rodia was unaware of such a possibility enables us to identify one of this tradition’s defining elements as a lack of consciousness of such a tradition. Another is that other instances or components of the tradition remain unknown and uncelebrated by the world at large, and therefore unpreserved. (To say nothing of the large number of such projects that, in spite of their creators’ best intentions, were never completed.) Cheval’s reasonable boast — “I have carved my own monument” — might provide an epigraph for all such lonely enterprises, but, by definition, those words have to be reconceived, recarved, and rewritten every time an individual pledges himself to an undertaking of this kind. Quotation is impossible, even if the message is the same.

Rodia’s ambition was merely “to do something big.” It wasn’t even an ambition — those are usually underpinned by a desire for acclaim, recognition, fame, money. Instead it was more like a hobby, something he pursued in his free time, albeit with unswerving single-mindedness. He did all the work himself, he said, because it would have been too complicated — more trouble than it was worth — to explain to someone else what he was trying to do. Possibly he didn’t entirely know what he was doing. Even his claim that “you’ve got to do something, they’ve never got ’em in the world” came after the fact, after he was done. So maybe there was something akin to Garry Winogrand’s compulsive credo — “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed” — about the undertaking. Rodia built the towers to find out what they would look like built.

So he got on with it, went steadily about his work day after day, in spite of tiredness, periods of sickness, and the never-to-be-underestimated urge to lie down on the sofa and do nothing. My uncle built his own house in the evenings after working as a bricklayer during the day — and he said it nearly killed him. (This was before he killed himself, many years later, in the garage of the completed house.) Perhaps a cussedness was essential in enabling Rodia to stick to the task in the way that some people are able to sustain grudges over several decades. He had something to do and he did it until it was done. Even so, there must have been days when Rodia had to drag his aching legs to the towers and force his heavy arms to climb them, when it was only after several hours that the friction of dull drudgery gave way to the steady rhythm of ongoing accomplishment, when he no longer had to overcome the reluctance of his own body, did not have to force himself to keep going. Or perhaps, at some point, he was so habituated to working that it didn’t occur to him to do anything else.

For every Cheval or Rodia there must have been hundreds of eccentrics who conceived the idea of devoting their energies to doing “something big” before running out of time, resources, energy, or will. Some got bored, fed up. Having committed themselves to doing whatever it is that keeps them off the sauce, the lure of the bottle at the end of a day — or a week or a year — of thirsty work proves irresistible and, on reflection, adequately rewarding. It doesn’t even need to be “something big.” The most modest ambitions go unfulfilled: a loft conversion, an extension to a house, a fix for a wonky front door that doesn’t close properly. The knowledge that there are things to do, tasks to be completed, is enough to keep postponing them, to give life a sense of projected purpose and improvement. Having made the long-postponed decision to go into the office just three days a week so that he can have more time to devote to his frustrated urge to play the saxophone, a lawyer discovers, in the two extra days at his disposal, that the main purpose of the musical dream was to blind him to the truth of his existence and identity: that he is a lawyer through and through. Or think of the person who believes that he has a book in him, only to discover that the imagined book is destined to stay in him, that it will not be written, will never be completed, let alone published. Such disillusion or resignation is not the exclusive preserve of those who dream of writing a single book. Writers are dogged constantly by the fear of not being able to do it anymore. The suspicion that each book might be their last is often what fuels their continuing productivity. Fear of future inability proves to be a powerful and immediate incentive. Along the way, however, they become conscious of the books they won’t or can’t write. At some point many writers contemplate doing their own version of George Steiner’s My Unwritten Books — though for most it, too, will take its place among their unwritten books.

There are other scenarios too. You can run out of time long before you run out of ideas or sanity. Some unwritten books are the result of unfinished lives, of premature deaths. Albert Camus had the manuscript of the novel he was working on, The First Man, in the car with him when he was killed at the age of forty-six. Camus had popularized the mythic figure of Sisyphus, whom, he said, we should imagine happy as he rolled his rock up the hill each day. But for anyone engaged in personal labor, Rodia is a far better model, for two related reasons. His labors were, like Camus’s, the opposite of futile — and they rendered the question of happiness futile, irrelevant. (Is the word “happy” ever part of the vocabulary of the cussed?) Each day, instead of starting from scratch, he made progress from where he had begun the previous morning. The protagonist of Richard Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North thinks of Sisyphus as an example of “the Greeks’ idea of punishment, which was to constantly fail at what you most desire.” Two of these three terms (failure and desire) play no part in Rodia’s work — but the task he had set himself was nothing if not punishing. The punishment was all but indistinguishable from the satisfaction and success of his endeavors. With every passing day, either the towers grew or the materials for their continued growth increased. Setbacks, false turns, and dead ends became the precondition for keeping on, for making something. Mingus recalls that Rodia was “always changing his ideas while he worked and tearing down what he wasn’t satisfied with and starting over again, so pinnacles tall as a two-story building would rise up and disappear and rise again.” But every day some small improvement was made: mistakes are also essential tools.

In a famous passage about forgiveness in The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt writes:

Only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men remain agents, only by the constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something new.

Was there something deeply unforgiving about Rodia — unforgiving, that is, toward himself — something punishing (that word again) about his labors? He would see the error of his ways, change his mind, start over, and continue with the same thing. Always the same thing, the one thing.

Progress was made — but so incrementally as to have been imperceptible — as each day he climbed what he had built in order to build the as yet unmade. Every day (the contrast with Sisyphus is crucial) it took a little more effort to ascend to the point where he could start work. So his purpose was perhaps similar to that of people who climb mountains. Maybe the only answer to the question of why Rodia built his monument is a negative version of Edmund Hillary’s famous answer to why he had climbed Everest: because it wasn’t there.

is the author of many books, including Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi; Zona; and White Sands, which will be published in May by Pantheon. His story “Forbidden City” appeared in the December 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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