Brewpubs, Coffeehouses, and the Conundrums of Income Inequality

How much is income inequality baked into human existence as a hard-wired legacy of the Darwinian struggle for survival and its associated desires for security, comfort and joy? Even in modern democratic societies with supposedly flourishing economies and a stated intent to seek justice and the common good, is there any true escape from the radical wealth disparities that persist right in front of us whenever we open our laptops or take a walk beyond our front door?

One of the many conundrums facing those of us in the 1-, 10-, 25-  or even 50% of the population that lives in relative comfort is that however motivated we may feel to be generous and compassionate toward our fellow suffering humans, the plain truth is that all of us have to make hard and often discomfiting decisions in how much of our own comforts—in housing, food, drink, entertainment, future security and other aspects of the good life—we are willing to give up in the service of becoming our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

I have been revisiting this notion lately for many reasons, not the least of them being a recent drive-by of the Southern California home where I spent the bulk of my youth before going off to college.


The $912,000 working class home


The Hidas family home was a modest but tidy affair, just under 1,500 square feet and some 15 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. Three bedrooms and a bath and a half, where my parents raised their six children (until my oldest sister got married and moved out at 19).

My parents bought it for $24,500 in about 1961 and sold it for $27,500 a decade later, when they divorced and became apartment dwellers. (They reconciled and remarried some five years later, when home prices were in the beginning stages of going berserk, and settled into a far smaller and less tidy home at nearly triple the price.)

In the way of such things in this smartphoned world, I looked up the value of the home as I drove by last week and was not entirely shocked to see the otherwise shocking, by any reasonable standard, value attached to it now by Zillow: $912,083. (Other online estimates were even higher, up to $989,000.)

This for a home that my parents bought on my father’s modest salary as an office worker with a housewife at home tending the half-dozen children.


In the new urbanism, cities are the renewed repositories of high and hip culture, where the steadily sprouting mix of brewpubs, craft distilleries and coffeeshops, bookstores, boutiques and bike trails, make for such a heady cocktail of modern enchantment.

What do you reckon the odds are today of a high school-educated office clerk with a stay-at-home wife coming up with a $182,000 downpayment, followed by the estimated $4,600 monthly mortgage that would be required over 30 years?

Pretty much down near zero, yes?

This complete pricing out of the working class from what used to be middle- and lower-middle class homes illuminates the fact that professionals in the increasingly knowledge-based economy have been on the receiving end of an enormous escalation in salaries that has left an ever widening gulf between them and the working class.

These salaries (and the investments they allow for) have been let loose in recent decades on the purchase of homes in communities whose preciousness of environment and culture combine with limited housing stock to bid up property values to heretofore unimagined levels.

That in turn drives up housing costs for the entire surrounding area in a game resembling musical chairs, in which those with fewer resources are forced to keep marching farther out to the urban edges or countryside before they can afford to grab a place to rest their heads.

And all the while, those of us already comfortably ensconced in gentrified and revitalized towns tend to frown on and even fight against, with nearly the vehemence of war, any further development that would allow for lower income housing so that teachers, gardeners, haircutters and deli workers could actually live where they work and perhaps even send their children to school alongside ours. (See: “Marin County.”)

Take a look at virtually every major urban area and their nearby tree-lined suburbs, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Portland to Seattle to New York to Washington to Miami to Dallas, and you will see the working class priced and pushed either farther and farther out to the periphery, far from the thriving soul of the city, or squeezed into remaining urban ghettos of high crime rates and crumbling homes (which simply await eventual gentrification).

In the new urbanism, cities are the renewed repositories of high and hip culture, where the steadily sprouting mix of brewpubs, craft distilleries and coffeeshops, bookstores, boutiques and bike trails, make for such a heady cocktail of modern enchantment.

This is a marvelous thing, of course, for Facebook and Twitter employees riding high on the stocks they owned before their respective IPOs. Also for older knowledge workers who bought their homes on the relative cheap decades ago, have raised their kids, and have either stayed put with ridiculously low mortgages and tax rates or sold their radically price-inflated homes in order to slide closer into the city, often at a downsizing profit. There, they enjoy the ready availability of restaurants, bars, theaters, and the hospitals and continuing care facilities that loom in their future.

(A news alert pinging on my phone as I type: “The wealthy expect to live to 100—and are able to pay for it.”)



For all its rewards flowing to the fortunate class that was in the right place at the right demographic and economic time, this entire phenomenon of staggering home prices has had dramatic consequences for the makeup of cities, upward mobility, and the wealth gap, as Richard Florida recently pointed out in the online magazine CityLab. In it, Florida poses a question in his headline: “Is Housing Inequality the Main Driver of Economic Inequality?”

After chronicling the tremendous growth in home costs and resultant wealth creation for their owners in recent decades, Florida answers his question in the affirmative in the essay’s concluding paragraphs:

“Housing is at once a basic mode of shelter and a form of investment. As this basic necessity has been transformed over time into a financial instrument and source of wealth, not only has housing inequality increased, but housing inequality has become a major contributor to—if not the major overall factor in—wealth inequality. When you consider the fact that what is a necessity for everyone has been turned into a financial instrument for a select few, this is no surprise.

“The rise in housing inequality brings us face to face with a central paradox of today’s increasingly urbanized form of capitalism. The clustering of talent, industry, investment, and other economic assets in small parts of cities and metropolitan areas is at once the main engine of economic growth and the biggest driver of inequality. The ability to buy and own housing, much more than income or any other source of wealth, is a significant factor in the growing divides between the economy’s winners and losers.”


Taking up where Florida left off, New York Times writer Thomas Edsall recently cited the challenges posed by the deepening housing and wealth gap on the political makeup and future of a progressive Democratic Party. (“The Democrats’ Gentrification Problem,” April 19.)  Edsall’s take on this matter ought to serve as a wakeup call to progressives who may be relying overly much on the revulsion countless voters share about the bumblings and atrocities of a retrograde Trump administration.

It should also remind us that there is no free lunch in this world, no freedom from contradictions that compromise even our most ardent and sincere yearnings for justice, kindness and equality.


Edsall cites data from a number of researchers who verify the profound economic, if not yet political, differences that threaten to drive a wedge between core constituencies of the Democratic Party. On one end of that wedge are increasingly affluent, mostly white professionals in the urbanized coastal areas.

On the other is the struggling working class, often comprised of minority and immigrant populations pushed inland or to the downtrodden corners of urban America.

What exactly do these groups have in common? Certainly not their penchant to meet up at brewpubs or highly touted farm-to-table restaurants where they can marvel together at the efforts of a Michelin-rated chef. These activities are lopsidedly the province of the affluent professional class.

Nor, necessarily, in voting patterns, given how many struggling working class voters pulled the lever for Trump in 2016, despite all available evidence of how little he cared about or would do for them.

In truth, what poor and affluent Democrats mostly have in common is that the poor would like not to be so, and the affluent would like that for them, too, provided it doesn’t force them to sell too much of their Apple stock to finance the poor’s elevation, or require them to forsake their mountain views or their route to the brewpub in order to accommodate low cost housing across the street from their own homes.

In other words, the class divide in this country is as stark and real as the still chilling reality of Donald Trump serving as our president, and there is always a limit, albeit a varying one, to how much the affluent are willing to endure to help lift up their less fortunate brethren.

For affluent Democrats, that willingness generally extends to paying higher taxes in support of anti-poverty and job programs, and lobbying against further tax cuts for themselves and their wealthy peers. But it stops short, by a country (or urban) mile, of giving the poor the shirt off their backs and a bed in their homes, as scripture across the world’s great religions exhorts them to do.

For affluent Republicans, on the other hand, a willingness to share their wealth (at least via their taxes; Republicans, being on the whole wealthier, do give more to charity than Democrats), generally extends to paying more for steel-toed boots so they can better kick poor people and get them off their lazy tushes in pursuit of the ever-available (at least in their minds) American dream. (Don’t let the door whack you on the way out, Paul Ryan…)

The difference between these two is why I identify as a Democrat, but that’s hardly the end of the story.

Though I consider myself generous enough in hitting appropriate benchmarks of charitable contributions and nonprofit work, the truth is I tend not to give so much away in support of the poor as to make myself uncomfortable.

And I have been known to rail against development and enjoy the fruits of gentrification as much as anyone.

So exactly how much a part of the problem am I, living in the (relatively!) outsized way I do, gobbling up more than my share of the world’s resources while a good part of that world still starves?

None of this is simple.

Brewpubs and restaurants and spiffy loft apartments replacing vacant and dilapidated buildings, weed-strewn lots of broken glass and trashed streets? The problem with that is what again?

Well, old and poor people may be living there at the only rental rates they can possibly afford. It may appear as a little slice of hell to the affluent, but to those who have no other choice or option, it is their hell, and they endure and need it accordingly.

So does that mean we should pass laws preventing the affluent from snapping up blighted properties and making something fresh and lovely and prosperous out of them?

Who and what is right in these scenarios?

I don’t know.

We live in a world tortured with these conundrums, a gain here in exchange for a loss over there, shake, stir, and consider the whole cocktail once again before taking a sip as one will. Both positive and negative consequences remain inevitably intact no matter what we do, as they must in a still fallen world of competing interests, desires and greed.

All we can hope for and work toward is some semblance of equal opportunity and right motivation, even as we acknowledge how elusive and even ultimately impossible achieving that goal actually is.

Until we establish some kind of heaven on earth, that is, or we attain some actual heaven beyond this earth altogether.

I would just note here that I am not holding my breath for either.


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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. See more at:

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Portland skyline photo at top of page by Jonathan Miske, upstate New York

Hidas home photo by Jay Helman, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Latte photo by Michael Allen Smith, Seattle, Washington

Feet on trail photo by Ryan Ebert, Portland, Oregon

Rolling Rock beer photo by Andrew Hidas

11 comments to Brewpubs, Coffeehouses, and the Conundrums of Income Inequality

  • Angela  says:

    I think we actually can hope for, and insist on, a great deal more in the way of policy, practice and legislation to insure that decent housing opportunities are not even further out of the reach of so many. This is not just economic supply and demand at work here. For years we have seen redlining, discriminatory housing laws and lending practices that dictated who could live where. We have been party to the building of freeways that displaced and destroyed vibrant minority communities, and tolerated inadequate public transportation systems that put workers homes even further from their jobs. We have turned a blind eye to laws that protect slum landlords and perpetuate unsafe rental conditions in our communities. We have seen acres of woods and farms wiped out forever with no thought to the watershed, traffic, overcrowded schools.

    Quality of housing goes hand in hand with neighborhoods that are safe, have good schools and a functioning infrastructure. These conditions impact not just where we drink beer and coffee but whether children are exposed to lead in their water and homes, whether they are likely to be victims of violence, whether they finish high school and grow up likely to succeed in life. Housing does not create all these variables but quality of housing is definitely linked with indicators of health and basic well-being and the extent to which individuals can fully contribute to and participate in our society. Enjoying the benefits of gentrification without a greater plan for displaced families is short sighted, at best.

    Inflation and gentrification may, or may not, be givens in this society. I would hope that our government, by the people and for the people (those people being US) would insist we seek a little harder to insure that we hold up the big picture here, try a little harder to maintain and create communities that are viable for all of us.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I hear ya, Angela, and agree that government could have a far more robust role in addressing the housing crisis than it does. But probably President Reagan’s most far-reaching “accomplishment” and lasting legacy is to have made “government” into a dirty word that his party continues to rally around to this day. This complicates all remediation efforts, whether toward poverty, housing costs, homelessness, education, addiction—everything except defense and homeland security, toward which we can’t seem to throw enough money and resources.

      I do think, though, that market forces are powerful shapers indeed of our current crisis. All those other factors you cite are true enough in certain times and places, but no one redlined potential buyers or ran a freeway through San Francisco’s Mission District or South of Market when those ‘hoods transformed over the past quarter century into hip neighborhoods of million dollar flats and tony ethnic restaurants. That was a result, I think, of both too many buyers being priced out of even more expensive areas like Noe Valley and the Marina, and a flood of new buyers from the tech companies with money and stock options to burn, ready to spend it on a limited supply. (Sample:1 BR/1BA, 656sf condo in South of Market, ONLY $799,000!) (Though you’ll probably have to come in over asking price.,..)

      Out of such competition come aggressive buyers and all-too-happy sellers, and I’m none too sure government can do much about it. Its role is more about increasing supply (which is often fought by those who already have their million $ flats) and actions like mandating low-income set-asides in new development (another matter that is often fought at both the neighborhood and the developer financing levels).

      Back in my newspaper days, I covered City Council and Planning Commission meetings that ran the same dreary script almost weekly: some kind of proposed change adding lower cost homes or granny units or a group home or condos to the end of a block, and out would come the well-heeled army of protesters clad in red “Save Our Neighborhood” t-shirts, chanting slogans. It was uncanny. But hell, I was one of the protesters myself years later when a church tried to sell their property near my house to a developer to turn it into a gob of houses. I thought it would create traffic problems at an already impacted intersection, and it wouldn’t be “affordable” housing in any case, both of which were true enough. But mostly, I just didn’t want the change. Who does? Almost no one. Which is why it seems almost astonishing that anything ever gets done in a democracy, I am telling you…

      • Robert Spencer  says:

        Change, altering the present for something new, is frightening, no matter how minuscule the departure seems. In restaurants, we tend to order what is safe. In fact, before we decide where to eat, we google the menu. In school, even when the class had no seating chart, we still sit in the same chair. Dostoyevski nailed our discomfort, our angst over facing the unknown, when he wrote that taking a new step, saying a new word, is what people fear more than anything else.

        Three years ago I left California, my home for over 50 years, and moved to Texas where my more progressive stances on social issues would be welcomed with open arms. Granted, my change was considerably greater than a first step or new word, its depredation of personal security was strikingly similar. How do I feel now? How did it all turn out? Even though Claire and I have family in Texas, we miss the grandchildren in L.A. We miss the drive from Cambria to Monterey. And there’s no comparison when it comes to weather. However, one cannot ignore the joy of fresh experiences. A $750 mortgage on a home with 2700 square feet and a swimming pool. No state income tax. A short day’s drive to the French Quarter. New friends. Oh, yes, the hurricanes, the tornadoes, and Ted Cruz.

        • Andrew Hidas  says:

          Robert, I often marvel in church how virtually everyone in the congregation sits in the exact (or nearly so) seat every time, and how they pause momentarily, confused and thrown off center, whenever they enter the sanctuary and note that some new, unsuspecting visitor is occupying “their” seat. Eventually, they settle in somewhere very close by and resolve to get there earlier next week so normalcy can return to their lives.

          So: I notice you didn’t bracket or otherwise note as ironic the line about your progressive stances being met with “open arms” in your adopted state. Did you mean to?

          And how far is your residence from Ted Cruz? I’d worry about the dangers of contamination if I were you—you’d best keep the sanitizers handy!

  • Randall Chet  says:

    Great post Andrew, as usual! Getting to the crux of the problem, I think there are deeper fundamentals at work here. Go back over fifty years and you can pretty much map the areas of affluence around the country and see how some very important confluences of policy choices and events resulted in their current relative economic situation. And sadly, for every Silicon Valley, CA or Research Triangle, NC, there’s a Rust Belt, OH. I suspect this will never stop. States and localities that recognize change and prepare for opportunity, with a little luck, can prosper. This look backward informs my progressive outlook, especially in regards to education policy. All that however is different from the results of the “great sort” and the pulling away of those in the upper middle class (and above). Give this a listen:

  • Jay Helman  says:

    While in Los Angeles recently, I heard LA Mayor Garcetti interviewed following his State of the City address in which his theme was to immediately address short-term solutions to homelessness in LA. I live in Colorado Springs where homelessness is also challenge #1 for local leaders. Garcetti was asked to comment on how to address both long-term and short-term challenges as are our leaders in Colorado Springs. The problem of inequality is so complex, and so intertwined with issues of health care, education, environment, and the role of government that it is hard to know where to take the first bite. During a lengthy career in public higher education where my job was to advocate for state funding support, I often left Denver Joint Budget Committee hearings feeling perplexed at how Legislators could possibly address the plethora of issues involving transportation infrastructure, education, health and human services, housing, et al. It is all so perplexing that it is no wonder many in our country desperately look for “black and white” simple solutions and elect those who promise that they have the magic bullet (i.e. immigration reform, high tariffs, etc.).

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Randall, among other things, your comment brings into sharp relief the insanity of Trump trying to bring back coal in a kind of ostrich-like sprint back to the 19th century. Talk about “policy choices and events” affecting economies! Save the buggymakers!!

    Thanks also for the alert on the Reeves book and interview. Gave it a listen, and most all of it made not only eminent and urgent sense, but also dovetailed with my own view that we good-hearted progressives and liberals are hardly blameless nor all that righteous in our own sense of entitlement, and in not seeing beyond our own blind spots. That said, the problems of inequality and the remedies that he pointed to—better funded schools, higher paid teachers, fewer zoning restrictions, an end to preferential college admissions and the home mortgage deduction, etc.—are fought most ferociously by conservatives, and are basic non-starters legislatively until the legislatures change. It’s depressing, how hard teachers are having to work and what lengths they’re having to go to to eek out minimal wage concessions from state legislatures in conservative states, for but one example.

    No kidding, Jay—anyone proposing simple blame games, boogeymen, and an easy return to greatness if only we “got back to…” (family values, prayer in schools, American triumphalism, draconian sentencing, self-reliance, etc.) is selling snake oil. Pull one thread in these complex societies of interrelated phenomena and watch the whole spool shake. Which leaves the question of which tiny thread we do try to grab ahold of and ride to some kind of progress, and what by way of diagnosing, preparing, planning, monitoring and analyzing we do in taking the action we choose—with a certain amount of fear, trembling and humility serving as a floor. Let’s face it, governing, and most especially governing by the heave and ho of democracy, is a messy and maddening affair.

    BTW, I read up on Garcetti just the other day, and was impressed most with what seemed either like true authenticity or an awfully good imitation of it. if it turns out to be the former, he could be going places.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Great post Andrew – and excellent responses fellow readers – hit my “liberal guilt” right in the chops over my morning expertly made cappacino (looking very much like your image) and attending a delightful farm to table demonstration supported by Master Gardeners (like my wife) at Kendall Jackson’s estate gardens last weekend… the housing issue/gentrification and such is the tip of the “inequality iceberg” from my vantage point – as Jay clearly notes it is damn complicated and all these issues are wrapped up together in a huge Gordian Knot… an interesting website dedicated to acting on these issues is Les Leopold’s – Here’s a blurb from his book of the same name…

    “There is nothing in the economic universe that will automatically rescue us from runaway inequality. There is no pendulum, no invisible political force that “naturally” will swing back towards economic fairness. Climate change is not going to heal itself. Either we wage a large-scale battle for economic, social and environmental justice, or we will witness the continued deterioration of the world we inhabit. The arc of capitalism does not bend towards justice. We must bend it.”

    A quick look to the western democracies in Europe (esp. places like Denmark, Finland, Norway) demonstrate this extreme inequality is not the only option – but it sure seems baked into our national DNA … have no idea what to do – but for sure mobilize to get the worst of the worst out of our federal gov’t and begin, repeal the crazed tax cuts, and begin to move in a different direction…

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Great blurb from Leopold there, Kevin, whom I had not heard of. I like his take on the arc of the universe quote, which was borrowed by MLK, who is usually credited with it, from the 19th century Unitarian theologian Theodore Parker. Great line, but it benefits from Leopold’s more activist sensibility.

      Nobody or no thing will be automatically bending that moral arc toward justice. It’s not a passive or “natural” evolution, but is instead paid for, often in blood, by people more committed to the future than they are to their current circumstance. What I’m beginning to hope is that Trump has begat a tipping point where enough people wake up to his dire threat to our democracy and civic discourse that he will end up as an unwitting catalyst for dramatic change—just not the change that he and his henchmen were hoping for.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Actually. I should have written “welcomed me with open-carry arms.”

    Drew, as you pointed out, the inequality that now exists between the haves and have-nots borders on the absurd. It almost has a Twilight Zone quality to it. If your parents were to attempt to purchase their Eagle Rock home today, their income would need to be forty times greater than it was, coupled with a down payment larger than Sandy Koufax’s salary in 1966. It’s frightening how much the middle class has been pushed out of housing markets, especially on the West Coast and Northeast.

    Just as a side note, the income disparity that presently plagues America has only been higher once and that occurred in the summer of 1929! The Great Depression knocked the disparity down a notch or two, but at what price? Bread lines and suicides. Also, your comment about how little the government will be able to intercede and close this economic gap among the classes is unfortunately accurate. During Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms when the New Deals and other social programs were enacted, spending increased dramatically but the Depression raged on. I’m in no way downplaying the importance of the social programs that Roosevelt created such as Social Security, the TVA, and the FDIC, but regrettably it took a war to truly bring us out of the Great Depression.

    Finally, how much are we rather progressive, upper-middle class individuals willing to sacrifice for the well-being of those less fortunate? Not enough I’m afraid. If the government were to draw up plans to build a housing project near our homes, wouldn’t we fight tooth and nail to block it? Wouldn’t crime likely increase? Wouldn’t our home values plummet? Wouldn’t the schools suffer? Those answers painfully echo the lyrics of the Phil Ochs’ song, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.”

    “Love me, I’m a liberal”
    By Phil Ochs

    I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
    Tears ran down my spine,
    I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy,
    As though I’d lost a father of mine,
    But Malcolm X got what was coming,
    He got what he asked for this time,
    So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.

    I go to civil rights rallies,
    And I put down the old D.A.R.,
    I love Harry and Sidney and Sammy,
    I hope every colored boy becomes a star,
    But don’t talk about revolution,
    That’s going a little bit too far,
    So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.

    I cheered when Humphrey was chosen,
    My faith in the system restored,
    I’m glad the commies were thrown out,
    Of the A.F.L-C.I.O. board,
    I love Puerto Ricans and negros,
    As long as they don’t move next door,
    So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.

    The people of old Mississippi,
    Should all hang their heads in shame,
    I can’t understand how their minds work,
    What’s the matter don’t they watch Les Crain?
    But if you ask me to bus my children,
    I hope the cops take down your name,
    So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.

    I read New Republic and Nation,
    I’ve learned to take every view,
    You know, I’ve memorized Lerner and Golden,
    I feel like I’m almost a Jew,
    But when it comes to times like Korea,
    There’s no one more red, white and blue,
    So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.

    I vote for the Democratic party,
    They want the U.N. to be strong,
    I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts,
    He sure gets me singing those songs,
    I’ll send all the money you ask for,
    But don’t ask me to come on along,
    So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.

    Once I was young and impulsive,
    I wore every conceivable pin,
    Even went to the socialist meetings,
    Learned all the old union hymns,
    But I’ve grown older and wiser,
    And that’s why I’m turning you in,
    So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Hey Robert, can’t remember which post it was now but I included a You Tube rendition of that Ochs song in the past year or two in the customary spot at the end of the post, and it remains a personal favorite of mine. It’s always struck me as a much-needed reminder to take a wide berth around self-righteousness, which is no less tempting for liberals than it is for conservatives. All too human, that…

      On the income inequality front, I just happened to bump into news of a recent study that disputes most all of the recent research showing the ever-widening income gap. Link:

      Makes for a provocative read, but however that turns out, it still seems to me there is something deeply wrong in a society where CEOs can make 20-, 30-, $50 million a year while our schools are shabby, teachers underpaid and millions live in relative squalor. It’s wrong, period, in a self-evident way, like the ready availability of assault rifles to a civilian population. Many matters that divide us have legitimate arguments to be made on behalf of the respective opposing viewpoints, but how a society can allow limitless wealth and countless laws and tax regulations that favor its continued growth while so many needs go unmet is simply beyond me. It is another of those matters our heirs will look back on in the future and wonder: “What were they thinking? How could they have been so unevolved?”

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