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Amanda Kolson Hurley | An excerpt from Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City | Belt Publishing | April 2019 | 19 minutes (4,987 words)
The Stelton colony in central New Jersey was founded in 1915. Humble cottages (some little more than shacks) and a smattering of public buildings ranged over a 140-acre tract of scrubland a few miles north of New Brunswick. Unlike America’s better-known experimental settlements of the nineteenth century, rather than a refuge for a devout religious sect, Stelton was a hive of political radicals, where federal agents came snooping during the Red Scare of 1919-1920. But it was also a suburb, a community of people who moved out of the city for the sake of their children’s education and to enjoy a little land and peace. They were not even the first people to come to the area with the same idea: There was already a German socialist enclave nearby, called Fellowship Farm.
The founders of Stelton were anarchists. In the twenty-first century, the word “anarchism” evokes images of masked antifa facing off against neo-Nazis. What it meant in the early twentieth century was different, and not easily defined. The anarchist movement emerged in the mid-nineteenth century alongside Marxism, and the two were allied for a time before a decisive split in 1872. Anarchist leader Mikhail Bakunin rejected the authority of any state — even a worker-led state, as Marx envisioned — and therefore urged abstention from political engagement. Engels railed against this as a “swindle.”
But anarchism was less a coherent, unified ideology than a spectrum of overlapping beliefs, especially in the United States. Although some anarchists used violence to achieve their ends, like Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901, others opposed it. Many of the colonists at Stelton were influenced by the anarcho-pacifism of Leo Tolstoy and by the land-tax theory of Henry George. The most venerated hero was probably the Russian scientist-philosopher Peter Kropotkin, who argued that voluntary cooperation (“mutual aid”) was a fundamental drive of animals and humans, and opposed centralized government and state laws in favor of small, self-governing, voluntary associations such as communes and co-ops.
The Stelton colony revolved around its school, the Modern School. Leaders believed that education could free the young from fear and dogma. “We claim for the Modern School,” wrote colony co-founder Harry Kelly, “that the hope of the future lies in the ability of the rising generation to think and act independently without regard to the prejudices of the past.” It followed a theory of education not dissimilar from today’s “unschooling” movement. Arts and crafts was a main focus. The school’s longtime co-principals, Elizabeth and Alexis Ferm, believed that the best kind of education for a child was creative, active, and above all, self-directed. There were no formal hours or set lessons: school was life, life was school. A printer named Joseph Ishill had come to Stelton right after its founding and taught the children to set type and print on his old hand press. Under the Ferms, pupils continued to print their own magazine, Voice of the Children, and also did carpentry, weaving, pottery, and metal work. Each morning began with a song-and-dance circle, “Aunty” Ferm accompanying the children on the piano.
Jon Toreau Scott grew up in Stelton in the 1930s and ’40s. He didn’t learn to read until he was ten, but went on to become a professor of atmospheric science. “You could learn to read whenever you wanted to, you could play all day if you wanted to,” he told me. “You could go out and play in the brook, which is what I did. Ice skating, sled riding, hiking, swimming … That was the way it went.”
Heading to Stelton for the first time from my home in Maryland on a summer day, I cruised up the New Jersey Turnpike. The closer I got to New York, stands of pine trees gave way to warehouses, vast troughs of commerce where tractor-trailers lined up to feed. A few miles past the Joyce Kilmer Service Area, I turned off onto Route 18, following the curve of the Raritan River through New Brunswick. After skirting the campus of Rutgers University, the road crosses the river; then I forked right, onto Metlars Lane. I took another right onto Suttons Lane, passing a giant Rutgers parking lot topped by a canopy of solar panels, and saw the sign for School Street, once the spine of the Stelton colony.
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School Street takes a dramatic couple of twists past a daycare center and around a cluster of modest vinyl-sided townhouses. Out of the corner of my eye, as I turned the wheel left and then right, I could already see what I’d come for. Two small houses — cottages, really — flicked by. The first was freshly stuccoed, but unmistakable for its boxy form and fat roof. The other was so unusual that I stopped and parked on the muddy verge of the road, which by this point had narrowed into a country lane.
The window frames of the cottage were filigreed in patterns reminiscent of Art Nouveau, and some were painted a deep blue. The plaster on the walls had been sculpted into decorative reliefs. As I approached on foot, I could make them out: stylized flowers, a swan, and a man and woman in peasant clothes, he with an axe slung over his shoulder, both gazing hopefully into the distance. This was definitely Stelton. Where else in suburbia would you find this?
The cottage was once the home of Sam Goldman, a Russian Jewish painter and decorator, and his wife, Gusta, who ran a small dairy business on the property, selling raw milk and homemade cheese and butter. The house is still owned by Leo Goldman, Sam and Gusta’s younger son. “Jon Scott [the former science professor] was my best friend,” he recalled of his childhood. “His father was strictly anarchist, where my father was Communist. The parents didn’t get along, but Jon and I did. We did our thing.” Leo Goldman’s middle name is October; it was supposed to be October Revolution, but, he explained, “They wouldn’t allow my mother to put Revolution on the birth certificate, so it’s just October.”
Most of the Stelton colonists had originally met at the Ferrer Center, an anarchist association in New York. It was named for the Catalonian anarchist and educator Francisco Ferrer, who had set up a famous democratic school — la Escuela Moderna — in Barcelona and was executed by the Spanish authorities in 1909. Emma Goldman, the legendary anarchist firebrand “Red Emma,” was the guiding force behind the center, which hosted adult classes and lectures by the likes of Scopes-trial lawyer Clarence Darrow. In 1911, the Ferrer Center started a school for working-class children along the same lines as its namesake’s, first on East Twelfth Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and later in Harlem.
Then, in July 1914, a bomb exploded in a tenement on Lexington Avenue, killing the four young people who had been planning to use it. (The bomb was apparently intended for John D. Rockefeller.) Three of the bombers turned out to be regulars at the Ferrer Center.
Scrutiny of the anarchists intensified, and police began to infiltrate their meetings. The center’s leaders worried about the militants among their group poisoning the atmosphere for the children. Kelly and his colleague Leonard Abbott wrote in 1914, “The agitation which is carried on by the [Ferrer] Association is both necessary and desirable. But it is possible such activity may have a harmful effect on the children and warp their minds; children require brightness and joy and they can best receive that far, and yet not too far, from the ‘madding crowd.’” So it was resolved to find somewhere quieter, away from spying eyes. Somewhere far, yet not too far.
The Ferrer Association purchased a tract of land in central New Jersey for $100 an acre. (Harry Kelly had learned of the area from a former girlfriend who was living at the adjacent commune, Fellowship Farm.) The association then sold one- and two-acre lots to individuals for $150 per acre, using the surplus to set aside a large plot for the school and infrastructure (like water supply). On a wet morning in May 1915, more than 100 people stepped off the train from Manhattan at the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Stelton Station. They slogged a mile and half through the mud to reach their new home, which consisted of a dilapidated farmhouse, a barn, and an unfinished dormitory building. After a dedication ceremony, most people departed, leaving a small cadre of adults and children to tough it out as settlers. They started fixing up the farmhouse, laying out streets, building themselves dwellings, and planting gardens.
Within the colony’s first several months, three principals of the school came and went, at least one of them put off by the primitive conditions. In the winter, it was so cold that students huddled under blankets as they ate. But under the fourth principal, the school — and the community — started to find its footing. By 1920, there were almost 150 adults and children living at Stelton year-round, and twice as many during the summer months.
Today, despite a few jutting McMansions and a row of electricity pylons near the brook, you can sense how idyllic this place must have seemed to long-ago children as they tromped over the fields, tanned and barefoot. Scott compiled a book of reminiscences by former students that brings daily life at the colony into vivid focus. Kids would climb trees to pick fruit or knock over abandoned shacks and outhouses when they were bored. Colonists kept cows, chickens, rabbits, and bees on their land. The unofficial “mayor” of Stelton was the bushy-bearded Hippolyte Havel, a legendary Czech anarchist who was a friend of Emma Goldman and playwright Eugene O’Neill. Formerly a writer, activist, and barfly in Greenwich Village, Havel lived out his old age reading and drinking in an apartment attached to the Kropotkin Library.
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In Stelton’s heyday, a bulletin board at the corner of School and Water Streets listed goings-on: births, deaths, political meetings, and Russian-language movies playing at the Europa, a European movie theater in New Brunswick. Some colonists took in boarders — often Modern School pupils whose parents had stayed back in New York or Philadelphia, but sometimes single men or even other families. (Finished living space was at a premium, especially during the Depression, when many summer residents chose to live at Stelton full-time because it was cheaper than the city.) The memory book reveals that it was not unusual for colonists to swap partners or to leave for a period and return with someone new. Husbands and wives were not always legally married. But colonists gossiped about the few women who raised children without a father around. When a sun-worshipping lady paraded around stark naked, neighbors asked her to knock it of. They were not that free-thinking.
Unlike many intentional communities, Stelton did not require any initiation or commitment. It was a participatory democracy with no formal leadership, where matters were decided by voting — one person, one vote (children included). Arguments would rage among various factions, especially between anarchists and Communists after the Russian Revolution. But since there was no coercion, disgruntled residents were free to leave whenever they chose. There were always people coming and going, including “normies” who had radical relatives or had married into anarchist families.
But that it was its own, slightly unreal world became tangible as I rifled through a folder of old photos in the archives at Rutgers University. In one photo, taken in 1924 or 1925, a group of young girls, their hair bobbed, dance through a field in drapey tunics, Isadora Duncan-style. In another, dating to 1918, two women grip either end of a length of lumber, apparently building a house. Another undated photo shows a small child playing a violin in front of a small shack, a row of sunflowers reaching as high as the roof.
Many of the colony’s children stayed at the Modern School for a few years, then went on to local public schools for a more formal education. A woman named Rose Murray, now a resident of Highland Park, New Jersey, grew up in the area in the ’40s. Murray would ride her bike past the colony. She didn’t interact much with its residents, she said: “They were really thought of as Communists.” But Stelton did influence the course of her life in a significant way. It stemmed from a playground conversation with a Stelton boy at their elementary school.
“I was in about second grade; third, tops,” she remembered. “We got to talking about God, and he said, ‘There’s no God.’ I said, ‘There’s no God?’ So I go home and tell my mother, who’s Irish Catholic. I was yanked out of that school so fast my head spun, and she sent me to a Catholic school in Highland Park.” Steltonites didn’t hide their radicalism, raising a red flag on the water tower (which angry locals climbed up and tore down) after the November Revolution in Germany at the end of World War I, and sometimes refusing to stand for the national anthem at the movie theater in New Brunswick. But leafing through the documents in the archives and a book of memories compiled by Scott, another side of the colony begins to emerge. Stelton was bohemian, unorthodox. It was also suburban.
In some of the experimental communities that spread across the United States during the nineteenth century, utopians strove to live entirely off the land. This was never the goal at Stelton, although as anarchists they prized self-sufficiency. Some residents, like Goldman’s mother and Scott’s father, enjoyed farming their smallholdings. Goldman’s parents were both from shtetls near cities of the Russian Empire — Minsk in her case, Kiev in his — so it may have seemed natural to settle in the semi-rural fringes of New York. But most colonists were city people who did not know how to farm and, with no other sources of income, they had to hold down jobs. They were working-class or lower-middle-class, and could not have stuck it out in central New Jersey otherwise.
On weekdays, before dawn, dozens of men and a few women piled into a red bus with the words “Stelton Cooperative Bus Ass’n” painted on the side. They bounced over pitted roads to the station, where they boarded the 5:45, arguing about politics in English and Yiddish. The conductor on the Pennsylvania Railway knew to expect them, and one can only guess what the other passengers made of the talkative, scruffy anarchists. Once in Manhattan, they headed to their jobs, mostly in the garment industry, but also as machinists, carpenters, cigarmakers, and sign-painters.
In 1919, the New York Tribune sent a reporter to scope out the curious settlement. Under the headline “An Anarchist Colony 70 Minutes From Broadway,” the article painted Kelly as a humorless zealot, and noted the lack of order and bare facilities at the school. “Some of the anarchists who live at Stelton,” the reporter noted, “commute daily to and from New York. Upon a train your anarchist is inconspicuously dressed, unless it be that he is rather below the sartorial average of the suburban traveller.”
Bill Giacalone, an artist who grew up at Stelton, remembers his father, who worked as a painter in New York, riding his motorcycle to the station in the mornings. Goldman recalled: “Some people used to take two crates of eggs to New York every day. They would sell the eggs, and they made enough to pay their fare and make a living at it.” The memory book mentions a woman who commuted to a dress factory in New York for a year when her husband was too sick to work. Having a school on-site and a constant adult presence in the neighborhood gave mothers more freedom of movement than was customary at the time.
Scott estimates that one-third to one-half of adult residents commuted into the city when he was a boy. Those who didn’t go into New York found jobs in New Brunswick or set up shop at home. Additionally, for a time, residents ran a number of co-ops in the colony itself: a grocery, a credit union, an ice-delivery service, a garment shop, and the jitney. These constituted “a peripheral if not unimportant feature of the Stelton economy,” wrote historian Paul Avrich in his history of the Modern School movement.
It’s tempting to see Stelton as a not-quite-suburb — they were anarchists who fled New York when it got too “hot,” after all — but that would be a mistake. Stelton is a late example of the mostly nineteenth-century phenomenon of the railroad suburb. Its combination of “ready access to New York with rural privacy and peace,” as historian Laurence Veysey put it, was only possible, at that low price, at that historical moment, after the spread of the railroads but before the major waves of suburban development in the 1920s and then after 1945. If Stelton’s nonconformist ethos was unusual for a railroad suburb, it was not unique: an earlier parallel is the village of Arden, Delaware, a colony established in 1900 to test economist Henry George’s idea of taxing land values as a “single tax.” Some residents of Arden commuted by train to Philadelphia. At Stelton, the residential community and the school both depended on the Pennsylvania Railroad. City workers could commute daily; summer and part-time residents could move back and forth with ease; non-resident parents could send their children to school on the train and come to visit without great expense or fuss. In time, private automobiles put jobs in New Brunswick within reach. Meanwhile, Steltonites also contributed to the suburbanization of Middlesex County by building homes and starting their own small businesses.
The decision to relocate to New Jersey — to become suburbanites — had in fact been fraught. Some of the Ferrer leaders worried that away from New York, their political movement would sputter out. Leaving the city seemed like retreat, like acquiescence. But a romantic vision of peasant communes was an important strain in anarchist thought at this time, especially among the Russian Jewish denizens of the Ferrer Center, under the sway of Kropotkin and Tolstoy. Kelly and Abbott later came to believe the move had been a mistake because the movement did peter out and the colonists more or less assimilated to mainstream society. Veysey pointed out that in this respect, they “played the standard life-improvement” game like millions of other new Americans during the twentieth century: “Deliberately leaving aside all questions of intellectual commitment, these colonists might be viewed as immigrant workers who were clever enough to purchase acre plots in the suburbs at a time when land values were still low and few garment workers could hope to escape from the slums.” Viewed this way, Stelton gave these families the socioeconomic leg up that many ethnic whites later got in conventional postwar suburbs.
It was more than slow assimilation that ended the dream of an anarchist utopia in the suburbs, however. There were several reasons for Stelton’s decline. Anarchism faded as a political philosophy after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, and young radicals (including some Steltonites) emigrated to the Soviet Union instead of setting up model communities in the U.S. Although the colony grew during the Depression, the Spanish Civil War divided residents, and the school struggled — and continued to struggle — through World War II. The most drastic change came when the U.S. Army built Camp Kilmer virtually next door, and 75,000 soldiers moved in. Although some struck up friendly relations with the colonists, others had heard rumors about “free love” and wife-swapping and came around to harass women. The school finally closed in 1953 and the remaining colonists trickled away. By the 1970s, it was down to a few holdouts. New development was enfolding and encroaching on the tract.
With a population of Russian and Eastern European Jews, Spaniards, Italians, Brits, and native-born Americans, Stelton was always a diverse place. (In its early days, there were also Native Americans on the school’s staff, as well as a Chinese anarchist, Gray Wu.) This diversity had a role in shaping its afterlife. After World War II, the great tide of suburbanization swept into Middlesex County. Black veterans who had been stationed at Camp Kilmer found most suburban areas off-limits to buy houses because of racist practices like redlining and exclusionary covenants. But Steltonites were happy to sell or rent their homes to them. The combination of a growing African-American population and anarchist roots appears to have disturbed the authorities in the 1950s. One former colonist wrote in Scott’s book that the FBI visited her several times, “apparently due to the Colony’s increasing Black population and the federal fear that radicals would instigate a Black rebellion.”
Today, Piscataway has a large black population and an even larger South Asian one. About 45 percent of people in the ZIP code are foreign-born, with a significant number coming from the Indian state of Gujarat. (A Hindu temple sits about 400 feet behind the Goldman House.) It’s a fitting echo of the settlers who hailed from Romania and Russia and England and Spain and China, all converging on this piece of New Jersey scrubland in search of “the liberation of the human race through libertarian education” — and, for many, a better quality of life than grim tenements could offer.
The schoolhouse at Stelton burned down in 1955. The library, however, remains. It’s now a private home, still tiny but fixed up with new siding and shutters. In the middle of the yard is a plaque framed by tufts of ornamental grass: “Site of The Ferrer Modern School, 1915-1953.” Driving around the area today, you can spot many original dwellings — many covered in vinyl siding or sprouting wings on either side, but with the telltale “Stelton shack” at their core. These are peppered among later ranches and split-levels. It’s changed from the bucolic homestead that Jon Scott knew, where his father — a self-educated, stubbornly free-thinking farmer — grew potatoes, beets, strawberries, melons, cucumbers, and asparagus. In strawberry season, Scott and his sister would pick the berries, put them in a wheelbarrow, and go down School Street selling them for fifteen cents per quart.
“I think it was the best kind of childhood anybody could ever have,” Scott told me. “There was no pressure to be good in school or sports. We were allowed to do things we wanted to do by ourselves. When you do something that you want to do, you’re always happy.”
Stelton certainly didn’t strike everyone as paradise. In its first fifteen or twenty years, it looked like a slum to most middle-class eyes, with bare, improvised buildings and unpaved roads strewn with litter. One unimpressed visitor declared, “Such sordid squalor I have never believed possible.” Even co-principal Alexis Ferm later said it was “a dump” when he first arrived in 1920. This was the same period when lots in new middle-class suburbs came with exhaustive deed restrictions, stipulating that houses had to sit a certain distance from the street, that residents couldn’t take in boarders or keep small farm animals, and that only Caucasians could live there.
The shabby look of the colony bothered some Stelton women enough that they formed a committee, as I learned after stumbling upon a newsletter in the archives at Rutgers. Titled ACTION, the newsletter was written and distributed in 1921 by “the Group of Action of Ferrer Colony,” which was spearheaded by Esther Shane, Marion Trask, Anna Koch, and Mary Stechbardt. The group called for “prompt action” to counter indifference and self-interest, which, it warned, threatened the colony’s aim: “To co-operate in getting away from the petty distrust and exploitation of the city, for the sake of both our children and ourselves.” But its main complaint was the colony’s appearance. In the “Colony Notes” section, the writer (Mrs. Shane, it seems) praised residents who were doing their part to beautify the neighborhood. The text, possibly a parody of bourgeois home-improvement articles of the time, reads like a cross between Vladimir Lenin and Martha Stewart:
Failing to secure suitable living quarters or acreage, the Comrades Shane have been offered by Sophie Cohen a quarter acre on which to build. Our secretary will now show us how a Stelton house should look.
Just see what two cedars, a blue door and yellow curtain can do for a tiny black shack!
Comrade Tafel has set out some beautiful Norway maples, eight or nine years old, along his driveway. He is also planting some more fruit trees.
Anarchists held divergent views on property ownership. Individualist anarchists endorsed it as a means to live freely, with a measure of protection against the meddling of the state. Those who tilted socialist or Communist might have had qualms, but saw Stelton as a stopgap. In retrospect, it is clear that individual property ownership is what kept Stelton going so long — much longer than most other secular communes. The natural turnover of population and degree of personal investment meant that factionalism, while bitter, could not topple the whole enterprise. (Outside work and the life of the school also helped to counterbalance whatever feuds may have been raging among residents.) Property ownership even saved the colony from destruction during the Red Scare. U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer sent federal agents to Stelton. “What saved us,” said resident Joseph Cohen, whom they interrogated, “was the fact that we were all property owners, tied up with all kinds of obligations and entanglements.” During these years, numerous anarchists were deported from the United States, including Emma Goldman, while Stelton carried on basically untroubled.
What might a Stelton for the twenty-first century look like? Today there is at least one suburban community-around-a-school in the U.S., called Greenbriar, about thirty miles from Austin, Texas. It is an eco-commune on land owned by a nonproft. For me, Stelton demonstrates the radical possibilities of lowering barriers to homeownership and giving individual homeowners more freedom. Owning a suburban home shouldn’t require a high income and big mortgage, as is now the case in many parts of the country. And it shouldn’t mean being restricted from taking in boarders or finding other ways to put your land to productive use.
In Stelton, many residents built secondary cottages or shacks on their land to rent out. This has been illegal for decades in the vast majority of American suburbs, and remains so. The 1920s saw the rise of zoning and land-use regulations, which divvied cities and suburbs up into separate commercial, industrial, and residential areas, and imposed a dense layer of rules on what homeowners could do on their own land. One house per lot became the legal limit in most of suburbia (and many urban areas as well). Duplexes, triplexes, and apartments were verboten. Farm animals were banished from many communities.
Now, a shortage of affordable housing pinches many cities and suburbs. There isn’t a single county in America where someone can afford a two-bedroom apartment earning the minimum wage. In a number of metropolitan areas on the East and West coasts, it’s hard to buy even a modest detached house for less than $500,000. High prices, inflated by scarcity, exclude lower-income people from entire neighborhoods. And because of the country’s longstanding racial wealth gap, that burden falls inordinately on people of color.
Thankfully, zoning and land-use regulations are being rethought. New backyard chicken laws in communities around the country have ushered in a return of chickens to urban and suburban land, something that would make sense to the Steltonites who sold their eggs to New Yorkers. More importantly, the state of California, big cities including Washington, D.C., Portland, and Austin, and even a few suburbs (such as Eagan, Minnesota, and Golden, Colorado) have moved to allow backyard cottages and basement apartments, also known as “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs. ADUs accomplish several positive things at once: they increase the supply of housing for small households and people of moderate means; rein in sprawl by accommodating more growth in existing neighborhoods; and give homeowners the option to earn rent to help pay the mortgage or supplement Social Security.
Many ADUs are what are called “tiny houses,” dwellings of between 150 and 500 square feet, or about the size of a small apartment. (Of course, Stelton cottages were tiny houses before the term existed: they were rarely larger than a few rooms.) Thanks to HGTV, tiny houses are an international fad. Those who choose them may be motivated by financial reasons (being locked out of the traditional housing market), the desire to live a more streamlined life, or both. Tiny houses are inherently more climate-friendly than average-sized detached houses, requiring less energy to heat and cool and standing on less land. They are also well-suited to the one- and two-person households prevalent in America today.
The politics around ADUs are tricky. Citizens often oppose them out of concerns over traffic, parking, and increased density. But this “not-in-my-back-yard,” or NIMBY, activism faces a growing backlash as the pernicious effects of exclusionary zoning regulations become more widely known. They “don’t explicitly discriminate by race, but they effectively exclude families of modest means from entire neighborhoods — and school districts,” notes Richard Kahlenberg, an education and housing policy scholar. “These laws promote economic segregation by government fiat.”
In late 2018, Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts introduced separate bills in Congress to combat exclusionary zoning. Whether one of their bills eventually becomes law or not, their focus on the housing crisis shows that it’s becoming hard to ignore as a political issue. A future with backyard cottages — and duplexes and small apartment buildings — dotting hundreds of American cities and suburbs would be a fitting testament to the economic opportunity that Stelton once provided working-class immigrants.
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Amanda Kolson Hurley is a writer who specializes in architecture and urban planning and a senior editor at CityLab. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Architect magazine, The American Scholar, and many other publications. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
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