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Saving Downtown Asheville, NC . . . Are you alright?

Saving Downtown Asheville, NC . . . Are you alright?


The true story of how Downtown Asheville was saved . . . but you won’t hear it in Asheville, nor will you learn its true Native American History. It seems that the same people, who want to fabricate recent history are inclined to change the ancient past.

The fabricated Southeastern Native American history that we have been fighting for 18 years has its roots in events and North Carolina state government activities that occurred during the exact period in which I lived in the Asheville, NC Area.  At the time, I had no clue that the fact that I was a front row, eyewitness to these fabrications, would have great implications for what I would be doing in the 21st century.  Life is, indeed a box of chocolates. Western North Carolina was for a long time a fertile ground for budding novelists.  However, in their traditional culture, the line between history and fiction was so blurred that it became natural to call fiction, historical facts, and then spend enormous human energy to cover up the fabrications.

Long, long ago in a land faraway, I was a 27 year old architect-planner headed to a plum of a job . . . the Executive Director of the new Asheville Revitalization Commission. The position paid $28,000 a year, which is the equivalent of $117,000 today.  I was charged with first revitalizing Asheville’s Downtown, which had not changed much since 1926, when the City of Asheville went bankrupt.  Once that process was running smoothly, we were to develop historic districts in the residential neighborhoods that bordered the downtown.  It was a career opportunity too good to be true . . . that’s because it wasn’t true.  We will talk more about that at the end of the article.

I made this sketch, when the snow finally melted in mid-January.

Many, if not most of the neighborhoods in Asheville at that time were charming, almost like fairy tale communities.  Because of the presence of the Biltmore Estate, they had been built in the early 20th century to mimic the villages of England.  The grandson of George Vanderbilt, William Cecil, still owned the Biltmore Estate.  He was a direct descendant of the noble Cecil family of England. His wife, Mimi, was a member of the Downtown Revitalization Commission.  One of our other members was the very same and very pretty mulatto lady, whom author Thomas Wolfe had a crush on in the books,  “Look Homeward Angel” and  “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

There was culture shock in the countryside, though.   Many Buncombe County homes and farms were neat as a pin, but there was a certain “class” of white people there, who were said to have descended from bond servants, who had escaped to the mountains.  They threw their garbage out their front door and their kitchen scraps out their rear door.  I realize that it is hard for readers to believe me, but when I arrived in Asheville, there were hundreds, perhaps over a thousand rural homes in Buncombe County, whose front and rear yards were filled with garbage bags and junk.  In 1978, we bought one of those junk covered farms.  There were chicken skeletons on the front porch and in the back . . . Miller Mountain.   Miller Mountain was a pile of Miller High-Life beer bottles about 15 feet in diameter and six feet high. 

One of our neighbors utilized an outhouse, sitting over a brook, that 200 feet later flowed into Reems Creek, a major trout stream.  It’s no wonder that some of the worst outbreaks of Typhoid Fever in North Carolina occurred in its mountains.  Eventually, pressure from the Buncombe County Health Department forced government officials to ban outhouses and set up free garbage dumpsters and garbage pickup services, which over time eliminated most of the “garbage yards.”

After ten years in Western North Carolina, I eventually became acculturated to the its eccentricities and harsh winters.  There was a scary experience as a result.  In 1986, PBS and BBC jointly produced a monumental TV series . . . “The Story of English.”    One show was partially filmed in Western North Carolina.  The producers were forced to put subtitles under the interviews with several North Carolina mountaineers, because few people in the rest of the United States or the UK understood them.  I became terrified when I realized that I understood every word they said, without needing the translations in the subtitles.  It was time to move to Virginia!  

There were only three Ingles Supermarkets in the whole wide world

There is no doubt about climate change.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the land froze around Asheville in early November and thawed in late March or early April. Water pipes, two feet under the ground, could freeze in shady spots.  We once hit 0 F. on November 3rd and -25 F. on January 15th.  One year it snowed 24 inches on May 8 and we had snow flurries on June 6.  In fact, my first day on the job, in mid-December 1976, it was in the low teens and six inches of snow came down . . . 8-10 inches in the more rural areas of the county.  The leaves change color several weeks later now in Western North Carolina than when I lived there.  One day, I was living in a house at 247 Alberta Drive in the Buckhead section of the Atlanta and wearing shirt sleeves.   The next day I was moving into a rental cabin surrounded by 8 inches of snow in the Reems Creek Valley, north of Asheville , dressed like an Eskimo.  No one knew the word “Inuit” back then.

There were very few evidences of the late 20th century in Asheville at that time.  The most visible was the 18 story Northwestern Bank Building, constructed in 1965.  It is currently being renovated into apartments and a hotel and has been re-branded as “The Arrias.”  There was the “Asheville Mall” on the other side of Beaucatcher Mountain from Downtown, which opened in 1972.  None of the original anchor tenants are still there, but it is now much larger with 99 stores.  Connie’s Fashions was a chain of women’s clothing, started by Holocaust survivors, Harry and Lily Lerner.   There were three modern supermarkets, all owned by Bob Ingles.  Ingles Supermarkets now operates 202 supermarkets in the Southeast. 

Speaking of Ingles . . . that is where my first cultural shock occurred.  I was living alone, while my wife stayed in Atlanta until the house sold. The nearest Ingles to my rental cabin was just south of Weaverville, near the home of the famous writer, O’Henry (William Sydney Porter) and the nation’s second oldest Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.  After my first visit to the Weaverville Ingles, I began to worry about my health in this strange polar climate that I had moved to.  The mountain gals would immediately ask me, “Are you alright?” when I came up to the cash register.  I would look at my hands and didn’t see any sores or signs of leprosy, but then would race back to the cabin to look in the mirror to see if I had boils on my face, dark circles under my eyes or perhaps looked pale.  I didn’t appear ill, but then there was very poor lighting in the cabin.   Eventually,  a fellow employee in Asheville City Hall explained that “Are you alright?”  meant “hello.” 

It was when I first arrived in Asheville that the North Carolina state government institutionalized a false history of the Cherokee People.  Earlier in 1976,  I had been a land planning consultant for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.  Their houses were washing off the mountains!  At that time, tourists were told that the Cherokees arrived in the Southeast (actually southern West Virginia) about the time that Charleston, SC was settled.  The Cherokees said that they did not build any of the mounds in the Southeast, but did frequently build town houses (council houses) on old mounds.   They said that Western North Carolina was sparsely populated when they arrived there.  The best that I can determine is that all these statements were true.   The farthest east that official Cherokee territory ever got was Soco Gap on the eastern edge of the current reservation. East of Soco Gap was Shawnee, Creek and Uchee territory until 1763, when it became a buffer zone.  If you don’t believe me, read the account of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh’s meeting with the Cherokees at Soco Gap, because it was the Cherokee eastern boundary.

The terms, “a bunch of buncombe,” “a bunch of bunk” and “bunko” originated in the 1830s in the US Congress.  The congressman from Asheville (Buncombe County) would speak for hours on why western North Carolina was the cultural center of the United States.  He was doing what we now call filibustering.   While I was there, the father of one of my staff members put together a collection of medieval armor for the Pack Art Museum.  It was immediately labeled “the largest collection of medieval armor in the Western Hemisphere.”  The armor turned out to be costumes from Hollywood movies and late 19th century European operas.   The poor man eventually walked into the waters of the French Broad River and shot himself. 

For two decades, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s motto was “Asheville . . . Ancient Heart of the Cherokee Nation.  Come sleep where De Soto spent the night.”   That ended when archaeologists discovered that the three feet tall mound that marked the capital of the Great Cherokee Nation was a round council house, abandoned around 500 AD. 

Currently, Asheville bills itself as “The Brewery Capital of America.” [}   There are a lot of craft breweries in Downtown Asheville now, but only one is ranked in the top 100 in the United States.  It is ranked number 98.   In a recent ranking of top breweries in the Southeast, Charlotte and Durham had breweries on the list, but Asheville had none.   The best Southeastern breweries were located in Atlanta and South Carolina.

Let me also add that later I designed the home of the NC governor’s Director of Economic Development . . . so I had intimate knowledge of the thinking behind the fabrication of history. In the 1970s, the State of North Carolina very badly wanted to build a gambling casino on the Cherokee reservation.  The tribe’s leaders were initially opposed to it, because they realized the corruption which would result.  However, behind the scene machinations got rid of the opponents to gambling.  Most of those families don’t even live on the reservation now.  Governor Hunt reasoned that if the Cherokees were assumed to be indigenous to North Carolina, they were much more likely to get federal approval for a casino.  

Thus, fabricated reports were issued by the state’s history and anthropology professors to say that the Cherokees had lived in the state for at least 1000 years.  Actually, the archaeologists had only obtained three radiocarbon dates for definite Cherokee villages, which dated before 1720  . . . and those were from after 1700 AD.  The North Carolina General Assembly passed a law that required government officials and archaeologists to label all Native American artifacts from the mountain counties as being Cherokee.  By the 21st century, the Cherokees and local Chambers of Commerce were saying that the Cherokees had been in North Carolina for 10,000 or even 12,000 years.  When Clovis points were found near Asheville a few years ago, the Asheville Citizen-Times stated that Clovis Culture points were made by CHEROKEES.

By the late 1980s,  government officials realized that the new North Carolina version of the Southeast’s early history didn’t mesh with those of nearby states, particular Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.  For 200 years, Virginia history textbooks have stated that the Cherokees were originally the Rickohockens of southwestern Virginia and West Virginia.   Virginia wouldn’t change its history texts.  Thus, a wide range of political tactics and financial “incentives” were used to pressure academicians and bureaucrats. Most of the Georgia Mountain Chambers of Commerce and many of the region’s politicians were receiving Cherokee casino money. The effort reached its most outrageous peak in 2006, when some newly hired women department heads in the Georgia State Government tried to change Etowah Mounds into a Cherokee Sacred Heritage Site.   The effort pretty much ran out of steam after the failure of “Maya Myth-busting in the Georgia Mountains” in 2012.  Funding for the effort came from the North Carolina Cherokees and US Forest Service employees, who had been transferred to Georgia from North Carolina.  You go figure!

Back to Downtown Asheville . . . They hired a patsy

The truth is that I was hired by the leaders in Asheville to be a patsy from out-of-state.  The Asheville Revitalization Commission encouraged me to go forward with my Europeanesque approach to the future appearance of the downtown, thinking it was doomed to failure.  In the meantime, the city leaders were negotiating with the Strauss-Greenberg Company of Philadelphia to demolish most of the downtown and then give it to Strauss-Greenberg to build a conventional regional shopping mall.   The concept included several mid-rise office buildings for which there was no market.  As I said earlier, Asheville’s only mid-rise office building is now being converted into apartments.

During the spring of 1977, a particularly inspiring sermon by the Rev. Hugh Eichelberger at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in North Asheville inspired me to come up with the idea of a grand downtown festival.  Marketing executive, Sam Easterby, headed up the organizational committee and came up with its name, Belle Chere . . . which is hybrid Scottish-French meaning, “Good Times.”  The first Belle Chere had over 100,000 attendees.  By the next year, it become one of the nation’s largest street festivals.

I found out about the Strauss-Greenberg scam in the summer of 1978.  By then,  32 buildings had been restored, several new buildings were being built as a result of historic preservation incentives and the Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) program, plus we were nearing completion of the new plazas on Pack Square that I had designed.  Something odd had occurred, however.  Several of the major UDAG participants received threats from the Mafia, if they participated in the project.  The victims included the company that owned the Inn-On-The-Plaza Hotel, which was planning a major expansion.   Its CEO in New York City was repeatedly threatened by the Mafia until he brought in the FBI into the case.  The FBI then brought me into the case . . . stating that I was about the only person in Asheville, they could trust.  At that point, there was not much I could tell them.  Why would the New Jersey and Philadelphia Mafia care what was built in Asheville, NC?   

During the second Belle Chere Festival, an architect, hired by Strauss-Greenberg, assumed that since I was the Executive Director and a Registered Architect, I should have a copy of the construction plans.   You can imagine my shock, when I realized what a fool I had been.  I went straight to the FBI with what I knew about criminal activities among some of Asheville’s most admired leaders, but there was to be another shock that day. 

Excerpt from Urban Design Magazine . . . St. Lawrence’s Church (right) & Battery Park Hotel (left).

Father Justin Petulis, priest of St. Lawrence’s Roman Catholic Church in Downtown Asheville, had also just learned about the planned mass demolition and spoke out against it in a sermon.  I learned late in the afternoon that he had been beaten up in broad daylight at the Asheville Mall by Mafia thugs from New Jersey. I was furious and so went back to the FBI, just as they were closing for the day.  I couldn’t do anything in city hall  No arrests were ever made and since the Asheville Police did not request assistance on the Father Justin Petulis case, the FBI couldn’t get involved.  Of course, I was required by law to cooperate with the FBI, but there is nothing I could do in my actual job functions to either stop the demolition or get justice for Father Petulis.  I had been ordered by City Manager Ken Michelove to have no contact with those planning the demolition or even to enter the section of offices where they were working.

The public did take action.  Save Downtown Asheville was formed by Dr. Wayne Caldwell, PhD,  Interior Designer Kathryn Long and Artist Judith Angel.   Their two year struggle should be made into a movie.  There was much intrigue, as if these young people were in Nazi Germany.  People were fired in Asheville, for just stating opposition to the demolition of the Downtown.   Their group eventually stopped the demolition project in a election, where Asheville residents had to approve the bonds required for demolishing the Downtown.  Downtown Asheville today is pretty much identical the urban design plans I that prepared in 1977 and 1978.  The only major exception is a large amphitheater in the plaza next to the city and county office buildings.  Our projects won awards from the American Institute of Architects,  Urban Land Institute, International Institute of Urban Design, American Institute of City Planners, HUD, Southern Living Magazine and a whole bunch of lesser known organizations.

One of the many forgotten victims of the effort to bulldoze Downtown Asheville was the Director of the North Carolina State Office of Historic Preservation.   He already had “stepped on toes” for criticizing the law, which required him to label all Native American archaeological sites in Western North Carolina as being “Cherokee.”   However, when he refused to de-certify the Downtown Asheville National Historic District as “no longer being historic” he was immediately fired by Governor Jim Hunt. The de-certification was required in order for Asheville to use Federal Community Development Funds for tearing down historic buildings.

Some things never change

In 2017,  both William Cecil and the Belle Chere Festival passed away.  A new generation of Asheville’s citizens just got tired of doing the Belle Chere Festival and replaced it with a Beer Festival.  That year, the Asheville Citizens-Times joined the ranks of famous novelists in Western North Carolina by writing a series on the revitalization of Downtown Asheville.  It was a doozy, even worse than when the Clovis Point article came out.  You would have thought that the young Gen-X and Millennial reporters would have glorified the heroism of such people as Wayne Caldwell, Kathryn Long, Judith Angel and Sam Easterby, who fought the old corrupt establishment of their city and won . . . in the process creating the Asheville that you see today.  They were in their twenties back then.   Oh no!

Does the reader remember me saying above that it was planned that my European approach to revitalizing Asheville be presented as a failure then used as an excuse to tear everything down?  Would you believe that in the “Downtown Series,” the Asheville Citizen-Times stated that the period between 1977 and 1987 was one in which the downtown languished and few changes occurred?   All the Gen-X and Millennial reporters had to do was read their own newspaper’s articles about the endless round of new urban landscape projects, real estate developments and historic preservation projects accomplished during that era to know the truth.  By 1987, Downtown Asheville was barely recognizable from its condition when I arrived in December 1976.  Street level tenant space went from around 40% occupancy to near 100%.  We quadrupled the retail floor space and over a hundred historic buildings were restored. Almost every block contained major adaptive re-use projects that were thriving.  How could they print such a lie and get away with it?

The series only mentioned the attempted destruction of Asheville’s history as an afterthought.  Someone else was given credit for my idea to have the Belle Chere Festival and another person’s name was used instead of Sam Easterby for coming up with the original name and detailed festival plan.  In June 1982, I went back into private practice and to start the second licensed goat cheese creamery in the nation.  We moved to Virginia in 1987.  Sam Easterby moved to Atlanta soon thereafter.   It was no accident that all of the achievements and awards from that period between 1977 and 1982 were moved forward a decade by the Asheville newspaper, so they would occur after Sam and I left the region.  The Asheville Citizen-Times gave someone, who had no role in the planning of the downtown, the design of its buildings and plazas or the frenzied efforts to stop its destruction, credit for all those achievements and awards . . . ten years later than when they actually occurred.  Soon thereafter a bronze plague was placed in Pack Square in honor of that person “for saving Downtown Asheville.”    So . . . Wayne, Kathryn, Judith, Sam, myself and many others were permanently erased from Asheville’s history.

The story of “Saving Downtown Asheville” might seem irrelevant to our focus on Southeastern Native American history, but it is not.  Over and over and over again, America’s history is being changed to match the political agenda of whoever has the power to do so.  Both local and national media will give the public less than truthful news and law enforcement will look the other way (or be too busy LOL), if the right buttons are pushed by economic interests and political powers-that-be.  Bureaucrats and archaeological lords tried to change the history of Georgia and Alabama.   They succeeded in radically changing Tennessee’s and North Carolina’s Native American histories from their factual past.  Today, text message generation of journalists seem more that willing to do as they are told.   Very often it is that bronze plaque or state historic marker that seals the coffin’s lid . . . unless people like you say enough is enough!  Now you know!


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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.


    • There was no comment with the comment above. Lou Campbell can write a comment again.


    Hey Richard
    I know what you mean about changing history. I see it every day. always dig for the truth


    Hey Richard, I will try it again since digi doesn’t like me too well. When you were 27 and arrived to start working in Asheville, I was a 26 year old country gal that grew up less than 60 miles away over Sams Gap into TN. I’ve been here all my life mostly. You could say it’s my neck of the woods that I’ve wandered in for almost 70 years. When I was a child it was a Big Trip to go to Asheville for a shopping excursion in the “Big City”. That meant going up the forever winding Hwy. up the mountain and down the other side. During this trip we would see many trash houses just as you described. Piled up with enormous amounts of You name it and the kitchen sink. I have watched as Asheville has changed over many years now. Glimpses of the past I see your drawings of Asheville in the Long Ago and Far Away as I say. Many of my friends attended the Belle Chere Festivals through the years or sold handcrafted itemsthere. I remember all of the hype about De Soto’s path deal in the news. I can verify that the climate here is definitely not-as it was when I was young. There were never summers with constant days of 90+ temperatures. All the seasons start sooner. The early bloomers are several weeks ahead of the norm in the 1950/60s. I remember minus 25 degrees and the snow storm with it. You know Richard said you know the area where you grew up like the back of your hand. I am the same. I know my neck of the woods well. Being a tomboy as I was called growing up I wandered high and low around these parts. I walked, rode, hiked the mountains. I have swam, tubed, walked up and down the Nolachucky. There’s a tremendous amount of Early Native American and other history in the surrounding areas. Thanks to the wealth of knowledge from your research along with tidbits I have learned during my life I have formed my own theories and observations. As you say everything gets labeled Cherokee at these dig sites near here. People never here much about anything. Hush, hush. Even I know that ain’t correct. I know about places that have been erased like they were never there during my years here. I find the oldest early history books have a wealth of lost or omitted information to help piece together some truths. I have been tracing my family roots that extend back to the early 1700s on both sides of the mountain. I haven’t been able to search out in the field as much as I would like to put my theories to the test. Like you say Richard, the Truth Is Out There. We will Keep searching around here cause you never know what may pop up. Thanks again for your wealth of knowledge.

    • Very interesting. Any time that you want to write an article about your experiences growing up in the Tennessee Mountains, please feel free to do so. Thank you!


      Lou, I so enjoyed reading all that you have to say about growing up in these mountains. I agree with Richard, you must write out your memories for all to see and remember. Look forward to seeing more from you in the POOF Newsletter.

    • Also Lou . . . I should have mentioned that I think the Chiska lived in the Nolachucky River Basin. Their name appears on a tributary of the Holston River in a 1684 French map. The Chiska were from Peru. They dug into the sides of mountains and hills to construct their houses. Be on the look out for what appears to be artifacts such as potsherds on the mountainsides and hillsides. The Chiska also were the most advance metallurgists, north of Mexico. You should find bits of oxidized copper around Chiska village sites.


    Thanks Edna and Richard for the nice words of encouragement about writing about my neck of the woods. And believe me when I tell you I have many many ancient maps that I have saved and look at almost daily Richard. As for the Chiska being around here I think that is a strong possibility. I came across an old map of Washington County (around 1800) years ago when I first started doing genealogy and history searching. It had a place labeled Warriors Cove or Cave. From its location and your articles Richard I believe that was where they may have been located. I did not save the map and have not been able to find it again. Tho I’m still looking. There are numerous old iron mines close by dating back to 1700s. These are mentioned in Revolutionary War pension statements. My father in law said there was an old silver mine in the area also. We used to go to the mountains in search of it. He also said that there was a small line RR that came down Limestone Cove and sure enough I found it on an early 1900s map of the area just last week. He was of Native American heritage. He and one brother in law walked all through these mountains and the fields along the river picking up artifacts all their lives. I throughly believe this was a highly significant area with multi different peoples living along the Nolachucky throughout the eons. Just as you have been finding in GA. Richard. Some of the Old place names for areas near here include Chestoa, Kansas City, Scioto, Okolona, Unicoi, Pee Dee Ridge, and of course Watauga. The area that became Elizabethton was called the Watauga Old Fields as my ancestors first came across the Blue Ridge mountains. I found wild saliva growing and blooming in Nov. along the Watauga River near Sycamore Shoals a few years ago during a college field trip we took. There is Indian Grave Gap on Unaka Mountain and the mysterious water hole near Lost Cove that are also mentioned in R.War pension statements of men from this area. Many truths to be found round these parts too Richard.


    There are petroglyphs on a large stone similar to the other ones you have written about Richard near the Cane Notch dig site on the Nolachucky. And yes it’s labeled ancient Cherokee as is practically everything around. BUT A BIG NOT to that. And possible mounds as well. The area is still majorly farmed all down the river as it has been since colonial times and I’m sure before then.

    • Could you get me a photo of those petroglyphs? For the first time someone is studying all of them together. ME


    Richard, Thanks again for your articles. The Spanish of 1540 called the Native people of S.W. Georgia “A-capa-chi-qui” The sound “Kapa” is found in a Native peoples name that lived around the Gulf of Mexico called by the Choctaw “Ata-Kapa”…they also said in their lore they arrived from the Sea. They were associated with the Appa-lousa people who seem to have dyed their skin black…this would explain the name Tuska-lousa one of the Micco’s of the people that lived in Alabama in 1540. Along with many of the Creeks they tended to be called by other peoples “Giants”


    Richard, If you look at the 1730 map you will see a few names of tribes connected to the “Ata” sound. They became part of the Creek confederation and are most likely related to the Atakapa people… some were called Acapachike that lived in S.W. Georgia and some lived by the Mississippi in the 15th Century. Curiously, the Cherokee’s also have connection to the “Ata” sound as I have read they lived on an island called Ata-li in the distant past. Concerning what was told to Mr. Brigstock by the Apalachi nobles the name Theo-mi was used for a lake in Georgia that seems to be a connection to the Toltecs city Teo-tihuacan. On the N.W side of Mexico another “Ata” town is named in that 1730 map.


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