Chicago'sFar West Side is best known (somewhat unfairly) for being impoverished and crime-ridden, but it has at least one major attraction as well as some fabulous parks, vibrant immigrant communities, and blues legends. Regardless, you're definitely off the tourist map on the Far West Side.
The Far West Side represents a very large, heterodox slice of Chicago life ranging from some of Chicago's most blighted neighborhoods to the solidly middle-class bungalow belt, with some strong immigrant communities in between. The Garfield Park Conservatory is a lovely and easy excursion from downtown for any visitor to Chicago, but beyond this one attraction, the Far West Side is untrodden by the camera-wielding tourist masses of the Loop and Near North. Pat yourself on the back if you make it this far into Chicago — you are really seeing the city.
Humboldt Park Lagoon
Downtown Little Village
Garfield Park is the Far West Side's most notorious neighborhood for violent crime and visitors with low tolerance for urban grit should probably keep their distance. But on the other hand, the park from which the neighborhood derives its name is one of the city's best laid out and it contains a major attraction in the form of the Garfield Park Conservatory, in addition to a gorgeous fieldhouse. Don't be afraid to visit the park itself — there is an L stop hovering right over the conservatory and the park is quite safe.
South Lawndale is the heart of Chicago's enormous Mexican community and is a great escape from Chicago's gringo downtown. Although mostly residential, the long "downtown" strip (known as Little Village, or La Villita) along 26th Street between Sacramento and Pulaski is a vibrant, smile-filled strip jam-packed with Mexican musical instruments, weekend festivals, bars, Virgin Mary towels, media-shops, and (most importantly) taquerías. As a matter of fact, La Villita feels like not just an escape from Chicago, but from the United States generally — it's certainly as close to Mexico as you can get in the Midwest.
North Lawndale bears little resemblance to South Lawndale. Unlike its very safe neighbor, North Lawndale is still recovering from very high levels of violent crime in the 1970s–1980s. During this time, the northern section of the neighborhood, known as K-Town for its countless streets beginning with the letter K, was jokingly referred to as "Kill-Town" for its violence problem. The neighborhood has some history to its name, but fairly little remains to interest a visitor by way of shopping or sights. Sears used to have its headquarters here and you might be interested in driving by Chicago's first "Sears Tower" (and other gargantuan Sears buildings) which the city is now restoring in hopes of rejuvenating the long-impoverished community around Homan Square.
Humboldt Park sits between gentrifying Logan Square and blighted Garfield Park and, somehow, here the twain do meet. The neighborhood has for some time been a cultural stronghold of Chicago's Puerto Rican community, centered around the long commercial strip on Division Street. The association between Division Street and Puerto Rican Chicagoans is pretty firmly cemented in the minds of most Chicagoans owing to the Division Street riots of 1966. The riots began during a Puerto Rican community parade, as a result of an economic downturn and high tensions between Chicago's Puerto Ricans and the police (and neighboring Polish-American communities) that came to a head after the Chicago Police shot a young Puerto Rican man in the neighborhood. Any legacy of violence, however, is long gone and visitors should feel comfortable visiting Division Street during the day to soak up the Puerto Rican vibes.
Humboldt Park's populace is diverse, but awkwardly unintegrated. Its Puerto Rican community now sits between the less affluent black community to the west and southwest, and a new, burgeoning white community seeking lower rents than in the neighborhoods to the east and north. The eponymous park is a lovely spot to observe the neighborhood's contrasts — between the three communities who flock there to enjoy the big lagoon, playgrounds, and fields, but never quite mix socially.
Austin is a fairly unique, albeit not terribly interesting section of the city. It is the largest single Chicago community area in terms of area and population, but it sits at the extreme periphery of Chicago life along the western border of the city, having only been annexed in 1899. The jewel in this neighborhood's crown is Columbus Park, considered the best work by Prairie School landscape artist Jens Jensen. The park has a nice lagoon and 9 holes of golf and is just off the Eisenhower Expressway (which was built over the southern end of the original park). The neighborhood is overwhelmingly African-American and middle class, and can't quite make up its mind whether it is urban or suburban.
Belmont Cragin, Hermosa, and Montclare have a somewhat mixed identity between the Far West Side and the Far Northwest Side, as the residents of these areas are a mix of what you would find in the overwhelmingly Polish-American neighborhoods to the north and the Puerto Rican and Mexican-American neighborhoods directly to the south. The neighborhoods are experiencing a huge influx of Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans trading up for nicer houses from Pilsen and Humboldt Park. For the most part, these are quiet, residential communities lacking significant tourist draws.
The Forest Park branch of the CTA Blue Line runs from the Loop through the Near West Side and on into the Far West, with stops in South and North Lawndale.
The Green Line runs to the Far West Side, with a stop in Garfield Park (Conservatory) and on to Oak Park across the city border. This is the oldest part of the CTA system, although the tracks and stations were renovated in the late 1990s. Looking through the window of the train gives you a picture of a different part of Chicago. On the trip from the Loop, you might also notice the gentrification spreading west from downtown — there are startlingly rapid changes from gentrified to decayed neighborhoods.
The CTA runs several bus routes through the West Side:
12 Roosevelt runs through the West Side along the edge of Garfield Park and North Lawndale.
18 16th/18th runs from the Near South Side through Pilsen, Little Village and North Lawndale all night long.
20 Madison runs from the Loop west through the West Side, passing by the United Center all night long.
21 Cermak runs from the Near South Side heading west through the Lower West Side, running parallel to the Pink Line. (Damen-54th/Cermak).
38 Ogden/Taylor runs along Ogden Avenue to California.
49 Western runs down Western Avenue for nearly the full length of the city, passing by Ukrainian Village and Pilsen to the east and Humboldt Park/Garfield Park to the west. It's an all-night route.
52 Kedzie/California travels on Kedzie through the Far West Side making connections at the Green Blue and Pink Lines.
53 Pulaski covers most of the Far West Side and runs all night.
54 Cicero covers the other major north/south thoroughfare, although it's not an all-night route.
57 Laramie runs up and down Laramie Avenue.
60 Blue Island/26th runs from the Chicago/Loop through the Near West Side, Pilsen, Little Village and South Lawndale all night long.
66 Chicago runs from the Near North through West Town and Ukrainian Village, passing within a short walk of Humboldt Park, and onward to Austin. It's also an all-night route.
70 Division runs from the Near North through West Town and Ukrainian Village, passing within a short walk of Humboldt Park, and onward to Austin.
72 North Avenue runs from the Near North through West Town and Humboldt Park, and onward to Austin.
82 Kimball/Homan connects with the Blue Line at Kedzie-Homan and the Central Park Pink Line serving Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, and Lawndale.
85 Central connects with the Green Line heading up and down Central Ave.
91 Austin Runs up and down Austin Avenue along the border between Chicago and Oak Park.
94 South California Runs up and down California Avenue connecting with the Green and Pink Lines.
The Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) is the major thoroughfare crossing the Far West Side, although travelers along the historic Route 66 will pass through the area as well, on Ogden Avenue, which leads from downtown. If you are going to Garfield Park or Humboldt Park, the main I-290 exits are at Pulaski, Kedzie, and Western. For Little Village, it's usually faster, though, to take the Pulaski or Kedzie Avenue exits from the Stevenson Expressway instead.
The Original Sears Tower and Headquarters buildings
The Garfield Park Conservatory is the one real sightseeing draw on the Far West. The Sears Tower is quite interesting as well, but it's hard to get to without a car, and the old Sears buildings are technically not open to visitors.
Garfield Park, (Conservatory Green Line). History-filled Chicago park a mere 15 minutes west of downtown, with some fun outdoor sculptures, plenty of green space, and a fabulous fieldhouse. It's in a rough neighborhood, though you can take the L right to the park, which is safe.
Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N Central Park Ave, . Th-Tu 9AM-5PM, W 9AM-8PM. Amazing botanical conservatory, one of the largest indoor gardens in the world, which is often blessed with large-scale contemporary art installations as well as frequent family-oriented events. Definitely bring the kids, who will not lack for things to climb on and strange environments to run around in. Perhaps in an effort to assuage especially fearful Chicagoans, the L stop actually hovers directly above the conservatory entrance, so definitely don't pass this place over for fear of the surrounding neighborhood. There is also ample free lot and on-street parking right around the main building.Free admission, except during special exhibits and events.
Laramie State Bank Building, 5200 W Chicago Ave. Chicago's most far flung city landmark is covered with wonderfully elaborate carvings in its art deco, terra cotta exterior. The bank's construction was finished in the malapropos year of 1929.
Old Sears Tower, 900 S Homan Ave. Chicagoans can't get enough Towers of Sears. This is the original, which at a height of 250 feet served as Sears' headquarters until the move into the slightly taller building downtown. Once the largest commercial building in the world, the tower must now content itself with being the tallest in the Far West Side. A short jaunt in either direction on Arthington St will reveal more grandiose old Sears buildings, from the power plant and warehouses to the west to the headquarters building just across the street to the east.
Walser House, 42 N Central Ave. For sake of comprehensiveness, you might want to drive by this Frank Lloyd Wright house in Austin after a tour of his numerous buildings in neighboring Oak Park. The house is a textbook example of success in applying the Prairie School design principles of strong horizontals and open interiors. Look especially for the attractive windows (not originals, unfortunately), whose patterns have inspired a line of Frank Lloyd Wright jewelry.Closed to the public.
Aguijón Theater, 2707 N Laramie Ave, ☎ +1 773 637-5899, . Shows usually F,Sa,Su. A busy theater with acclaimed productions of Spanish-language and bi-lingual comedy, drama, music, and dance.$20.
Apollos 2000, 2875 W Cermak Rd, ☎ +1 773 247-0200. The Apollos is a major local landmark, its art deco theater facade now serving a music hall. The events calendar is dominated by live Mexican bands, but branches out into a little of everything. You'll need to swing by or check the papers to keep abreast of events, but even if you don't catch a show, take note of this beautiful building.
Wallace's Catfish Corner, . Each summer Wallace's puts on outdoor blues concerts in East Garfield Park, and you should not pass up such an opportunity. Word has it this parking lot extravaganza may be the best blues experience known to man. Check their website for details (See below).
Events & festivals
Little Village Arts Fest, 2756 S Harding Ave, ☎ +1 773 542-9233, . Early October — see website for dates. Like the Pilsen Open Studios event in neighboring Pilsen, the annual Little Village Arts Fest opens the doors of the several art studios and participating businesses in the neighborhood for a weekend of browsing and community spirit.
For the most part, if you are out shopping in the Far West Side of Chicago, you somewhere got lost. The one exception being the endless Little Village strip along 26th St, which is after the Magnificent Mile, the largest commercial strip in the city in terms of revenue. The miles of colorful, bargain knickknack shops along the Little Village strip make for very fun window shopping, and can produce kitschy souvenirs that look like you took a trip to a different country.
Brickyard Mall, 2554 N Narragansett Ave, ☎ +1 773 745-8838, . M-Sa 10AM-9PM, Su 11AM-6PM. Aside from dominating Belmont Cragin commerce, there's nothing much special about the Brickyard Mall. But you'll find what you need here.
Markski's CDs, 5745 W Belmont Ave, ☎ +1 773 889-5400, . M-F 1PM-8PM, Sa 11AM-8PM, Su 11AM-6PM. If you like the thumping Polish Eurodance over at Jedynka, this is the place to pick up some CDs. Also carries loads of Polish music video DVD compilations.
Out of the Past Records, 4407 W Madison St, ☎ +1 773 626-3878, . M-Sa noon-7PM. An out of the way music store stocking a near infinite quantity of R&B, jazz, blues, and gospel LPs and tapes stacked straight up to the ceiling.
The Far West has virtually no high-end dining options, but if you are fine with spending less, a ton of great food experiences await. Little Village boasts some of the best authentic Mexican food in the city, Garfield Park and Austin have some fine down-home cooking, and Humboldt Park has a veritable monopoly on Chicago's Puerto Rican fare.
Cafe Colao, 2638 W Division St (A block and a half east of Humboldt Park, #70 Division bus), ☎ +1 773 276-1780. M 7AM-5PM, T-F,Su 7AM-6PM, Sa 8AM-6PM. This small, inviting cafe is one of the best options for visitors wanting a simple, yet authentic Puerto Rican lunch. One part coffee shop, one part bakery, and delicious sandwiches. If you are up early and in the neighborhood, come here for a terrific Puerto Rican breakfast.$2-5.
Feed, 2803 W Chicago Ave (#66 Chicago bus), ☎ +1 773 489-4600, . M,W-F 8AM-10PM, Sa 9AM-10PM, Su 9AM-9PM. This Garfield Park rotisserie chicken joint also boasts a mean pulled pork BBQ sandwich, all with a host of comfort-food side dishes — Feed pulls in a lot of business all week long. The food is good and cheap.$3-7.
La Palma, 1340 N Homan Ave (Two blocks west of the park), ☎ +1 773 862-0886. M-Sa 9AM-8PM, Su 10AM-7PM. La Palma won't catch your eye, but this cafeteria-style eatery is considered by locals to serve the best Puerto Rican food in Chicago. If authentic is what you want, this is your best bet.$4-8.
MacArthur's, 5401 W Madison Ave, ☎ +1 773 261-2316, . 11AM-9PM daily. Perhaps Austin's favorite soul food kitchen, MacArthur's delights patrons with properly done comfort food in a cafeteria-style eating area. Since getting the President Obama endorsement in "The Audacity of Hope," MacArthur's is now drawing foodies from all over the city — with all due hailing to the Chief, he isn't right that this is the best soul food in the city, but may well be the best value.$3-8.
Peeples Taco Place, 5944 W Chicago Ave, ☎ +1 773 626-7699. Weekdays 8AM-3AM, weekends 24 hours. The soul food taco is a rare beast, but the long lines coming out the door of this small Austin carryout joint should give confidence to the quality of its inauthentic and wildly unhealthy "Mexican" cooking in a less than safe stretch of Chicago Ave. Get your tacos drenched in hot sauce and the fries in mild.$1.50-5.
Taquería Atotonilco, 3916 W 26th St (#53 Pulaski bus), ☎ +1 773 762-3380. M-Th 9AM-2AM, F-Su 24 hours. Tacos and tortas in a small, family run taquería. Also a good spot for fruit fanatics, as they offer fresh squeezed juices and licuados (milkshakes made with fresh fruit).$1.50-5.
Taquería Los Comales, 3141 W 26th St, ☎ +1 773 523-1689, . M-Th 7:30AM-3AM, F,Su 7:30AM-5AM, Sa 7:30AM-6AM. The original Los Comales is a big, family-friendly, cafeteria-style eatery with a take-out counter and even a drive-through window. Skip the combo platters in favor of the authentic, cilantro-drenched tacos. If your taco experiences have been limited to gringo chains, the ones here will leave you weak in the knees with pleasure. The "Al Pastor" pork taco is the local specialty, but all options are great. Wash your meal down with a glass of horchata and all will be right with the world.$1.50-8.
Grota, 3112 N Central Ave, ☎ +1 773 622-4677, . Tu-Su 11AM-8PM. Belmont and Central is commonly agreed upon as the heart of Chicago's North Side Polish community, and Grota is right in the middle of it, with a reputation as simply the area's best Polish restaurant. The buffet is scrumptious and affordable, the atmosphere distinctly Polish. (Website in Polish.) But if you were looking for something a little more upscale, look just north on the Far Northwest Side for Lutnia.$9-15.
Home Run Inn Pizzeria, 4254 W 31st St (#53 Pulaski bus), ☎ +1 773 247-9696, . M-Th 11AM-10PM, F 11AM-11:30PM, Sa noon-11:30PM, Su noon-10PM. If you've spent much time in Chicago at all, you've probably run into Home Run Pizza, whether you passed by a franchise or just the frozen goods aisle of a grocery store. This is the original location. Many consider its crunchy Chicago-thin-crust pizza the best in the city.$10-20.
La Bruquena, 2726 W Division St (#52 Division bus), ☎ +1 773 276-2915. 11AM-11:30PM daily. An excellent, very authentic, and inviting Puerto Rican-Caribbean restaurant next to the park on Division.$10-16.
Los Dos Laredos Restaurante, 3120 W 26th St, ☎ +1 773 376-3218, . M-Th 6AM-midnight, F-Su 24 hours. A natural choice for dinner if you are in Little Village — you can't miss the brightly painted building under the Little Village Arch. A breakfast of chorizos and omelets will not disappoint. Later in the day try one of their signature massive grill combos. Live bands perform on Saturday nights.$10-18.
Lou Malnati's, 3859 W Ogden Ave, ☎ +1 773 762-0800, . M-Th 11AM-9PM, F-Sa 11AM-10PM, Su 12:30-4PM. Top notch deep dish pizza in Lawndale. Stick to the pizza — the other dishes are sub-par. It's actually the first sit-down restaurant in the neighborhood, staffed by mostly volunteers, & proceeds go to the local community center — eat your pizza for the children!$8-22.
Maiz, 1041 N California Ave, ☎ +1 773 276-3149. T-Su 5PM-10PM. When in Humboldt Park, Puerto Rican food really should be the choice of the day, but you might not be able to resist this particular Mexican restaurant. It serves Mexican antojitos in a manner akin to a Spanish tapas restaurant, and has an exotic selection of very traditional, but not-well-known dishes from Mexico's regions — like Tamal Oaxaqueno, a tamale wrapped in a banana leaf, stuffed with chicken or pork and green salsa and topped with cheese. The low prices make this small restaurant a rather astounding deal.$10-20 (meal).
Mi Tierra, 2528 S Kedzie Ave, ☎ +1 773 254-7722, . M-Th 11AM-10PM, F 11AM-2AM, Sa 11AM-3AM, Su 11AM-1AM. Mi Tierra is an excellent Mexican restaurant that tends to get more gringo visitors than most establishments in über-Mexican Little Village. That's probably because the place is more fun for its very colorful and friendly atmosphere than for the food, which while very good, is occasionally outclassed by some of the less inviting restaurants nearby. The parillada, an on-table grill piled high with grilled and marinated meats, is the specialty.$7-15.
Operetta, 5653 W Fullerton Ave, ☎ +1 773 622-2613. noon-10PM daily. English menus are available, but they're the secondary option at this Czech/Bohemian restaurant in Belmont-Cragin. Goulash and bread dumplings in hearty portions are the stand-bys, with food to be accompanied by a pilsner, but the waitresses will guide you through extra options.$10-15.
Wallace's Catfish Corner, 2800 W Madison St, ☎ +1 773 638-3474, . M-Th 11AM-midnight, F-Sa 11AM-3AM, Su 11AM-10PM. If it was good enough for Mayor Harold Washington Jr, Don King, and even Mr T, it stands to reason Wallace's soul food is good enough for you. The ribs are fabulous, but be sure to save room for the sweet potato pie.$9-13.
Most of Chicago's bar hoppers couldn't locate the Far West Side on a map, but if you are looking for something different, there are some real gems. And rest assured you will successfully evade the Lincoln Park frat-boy crowd.
California Clipper, 1002 N California Ave (52 Kedzie/California bus), ☎ +1 773 384-2547, . Su-F 8PM-2AM, Sa 8PM-3AM. Somehow the coolest, trendiest bar/lounge in this section of the city has actually been here for over 70 years. The authentic jazz-age art deco bar, serving authentic jazz-age American cocktails (and $2 PBRs) just enjoyed a thorough restoration, and the red lighting, red booths, and red bar make for a very attractive place to enjoy some drinks. Entertainment is provided in the form of live music F-Sa (jazz, blues, honky tonk, country, etc.), as well as ridiculous board games like Pretty Princess and Hungry Hungry Hippos.
The Continental, 2801 W Chicago Ave (66 Chicago, 52 Kedzie/California, or 65 Grand bus), ☎ +1 773 292-1200. M-F 5PM-4AM, Sa 5PM-5AM, Su 6PM-4AM. Somehow the party wound up at the intersection of Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, and Ukrainian Village. Rock 'n' roll blares out the speakers into the small hours of the night. Because of the extremely long hours, it fills up with already wasted trendsters after midnight and gets extremely trashy and raucous, but that can be fun in its own way.
La Justicia, 3901 W 26th St, ☎ +1 773 522-0041. M-Th 10AM-10PM, F 10AM-3AM, Sa 9AM-midnight, Su 9AM-11PM. You'll have fun here. La Villita's favorite Latin-American rock club packs in large, high energy crowds every Friday night. The place is just a mild mannered restaurant, however, the rest of the week.
Los Globos, 3059 S Central Park Ave, ☎ +1 773 277-4141. F 7PM-1:30AM, Sa 7PM-2:30AM. A giant Mexican country nightclub/dance hall with three full bars deep into the thick of La Villita. Weekends can see hundreds of visitors, seeking to replicate an experience for which you'd normally have to head to Northern Mexico.Cover: $15-20.
Rooster's Palace, 4501 W Madison St (20 Madison bus), ☎ +1 773 678-0739. Walk in here and you'll think you're in a movie. It's just not possible to pack more West Side blues culture into one bar, and for a good reason — it's sadly the only one left of the West Side's legendary blues clubs. A true neighborhood dive, which sees nonetheless a trickle of blues lovers from all over the city to catch the likes of Tail Dragger, a bluesman who's been sweatin' all over Chicago since the days when he played with Howlin' Wolf. Showtimes are unpredictable, so you might want to call in advance, but Tail Dragger usually plays all Saturday night
Options are few in these parts; if you are looking for cheaper accommodations away from the city center, there are better options elsewhere. If you are looking to stay on the Far West specifically, you might also consider hotels in the neighboring suburbs of Oak Park, Berwyn and Cicero.
Fullerton Hotel, 3919 W Fullerton Ave, ☎ +1 773 227-2100. The Far West Side saw a lot of mob activity back in the day and this independent hotel can claim the dubious distinction of having put up John Dillinger on occasion. Otherwise, it's just another cheap, dingy option far from the city center.Rooms from $32 for bath shared with one other room, $135 weekly for the same.
Grand Motel West, 4925 W Madison St, ☎ +1 773 921-1900. Accommodations really far west, although not far from the Green Line train and the expressway.Rooms from $50.
Hotel Norford, 1508 N Pulaski Rd, ☎ +1 773 235-1202. An old, independent, somewhat run-down hotel in northwestern Humboldt Park. For those with lively 1930s gangster imaginations, George "Red" Barker caught 18 bullets from a Tommy gun right in front of the hotel steps in 1932.Rooms from $29 shared bath, $34 private.
North Hotel, 1622 N California Ave, ☎ +1 773 278-2425. By Far West Side standards, this spot has a good location — just across the intersection from the Humboldt Park Lagoon.Only weekly rates available, $125 plus $50 security deposit, pay stub and ID.
The following libraries offer free public internet access:
West Belmont Branch, 3104 N Narragansett Ave, ☎ +1 312 746-5142. M,W 10AM-6PM, Tu,Th noon-8PM, F-Sa 9AM-5PM.
West Chicago Avenue Branch, 4856 W Chicago Ave, ☎ +1 312 743-0260. M,W 10AM-6PM, Tu,Th noon-8PM, F-Sa 9AM-5PM.
The usual advice given by Chicagoans for staying safe on the Far West Side is to simply stay away from the Far West Side, given its notorious reputation for violent crime. Garfield Park (the neighborhood, not the park) and much of North Lawndale do their best to live up to this reputation, but the reality across the district is quite varied. The northern neighborhoods around Belmont-Cragin rank among some of the safest in the city. While certain residential areas of South Lawndale can be a little edgy at night, visitors should have no worries walking 26th St, night or day — you would be more likely to run into trouble on Navy Pier.
On the other hand, if you are visiting North Lawndale, Garfield Park, or much of Austin, usual rules for blighted urban neighborhoods apply: know where you're going, stick to well-lit main streets, arrange/plan transportation in advance, and don't leave anything visible (even trash) in a parked car. Anything you'd want to see in Garfield Park is fortunately located within one block of the Conservatory L stop along main streets, although you still might want to avoid walking back to the stop after dark if you are by yourself. If you are visiting any of the sights in North Lawndale or Austin, it's best to travel by car.
The more traveled sections of Humboldt Park (i.e., east of the park) are pretty safe by big city standards any time of the day. Other areas, especially southwest of the park, however, have some rougher streets you may want to avoid.
If you're looking to check out one of the city's best collections of commercial Art Deco architecture by greats such as Z. Erol Smith, head north to Belmont-Central in what is one of the few intact streetcar shopping districts in Chicago and an Eastern European culinary heaven.
The Green Line is a good way to reach Oak Park, the Frank Lloyd Wright fiesta.
For authentic Mexican food a little closer to downtown, head to Pilsen.
There are some great small blues clubs still breathing on the Far West Side, but arguably the best are in Chatham-Greater Grand.
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