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Chicago Style

Thomas Frank’s “Chicago Is the Future” [Easy Chair, December] articulated the increasing sense of alienation I’ve felt each time I’ve returned to my hometown since my departure in 1992. I am always glad to come back, and I never fail to recall my sense of the city — its solidity, beauty, and grit. But the “strangely tidy streets” Frank mentions spook me more than a little, and the zealous commodification of neighborhoods and other institutions leaves me cold. I had hoped that the sheer size, diversity, and no-nonsense character of Chicago would transcend some of the less savory aspects of two decades of gentrification and stratification. But the recent privatizing and homogenizing of “green zones” makes me dubious. The real Chicago is found away from its trendiest places, and I hope that the aspects of its true character can be preserved amid a seemingly overwhelming movement to serve and protect the elite.

Stuart G. Levy
Arlington, Mass.

Like Thomas Frank, I’m an alumnus of the University of Chicago (I graduated in 1960), but I first saw the school and Hyde Park through the eyes of an African-American kid from a South Side ghetto high school. Frank’s memories intrigued me because they are so different from mine. Fewer than a dozen black students were on campus in my day, all of us hailing from vastly different economic and academic backgrounds. The university proved a good training ground for me. I later thrived at the nearly all-white headquarters of a major corporation in Atlanta, where I lived for several years. I returned to Chicago in 2004 and moved into a high-rise apartment complex built in the 1950s and meant to attract upscale whites. That expected influx never came, but these days the affordable rents and acres of free parking are appealing to other groups. Many times on the elevator, I’ve heard three different languages. This is characteristic of Chicago, which has long been willing — in fact, eager — to try new things. Rahm Emanuel seems to understand this, and while I too have my criticisms of the mayor, I give him credit for seeking to channel the city’s energy.

Hosea L. Martin

I grew up near Chicago, and I remember the old city well. Since 1975, I have lived in San Francisco, which in recent years has also become so stratified as to be unrecognizable. The skyline is dotted with cranes; rents and property values are insane; and poor people and minorities are being pushed to the far suburbs, or Texas. For many life-long locals, the only new jobs being created are low-wage service positions as waiters, baristas, and security guards. Fabulous new restaurants and condo developments open daily, filled by new arrivals with money but no particular investment in the city. As in Chicago, local government has cooperated in this transformation. This has always been a gorgeous city, but it used to have a few rough edges, along with an empowered working class. Now it is mostly nice to look at, supposedly safer to walk around in, and increasingly occupied by wealthy people with an outsize sense of entitlement. Few seem to grasp that the well-off techies will abandon this place in an instant when the economic paradigm changes, making this no more than a very pretty ghost town.

Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco

State Schools

As an international-relations dropout, I read Andrew Cockburn’s article [“Secretary of Nothing,” Letter from Washington, December] with a “no shit” sense of dispassion. Cockburn is correct that my classmates and I rarely examined domestic politics’ primacy in foreign policy, but contrary to his argument, this is because policymakers, not scholars, determine what is useful and appropriate in IR programs. In the U.S., policy relevance is reinforced by a widespread desire among scholars to assume policymaking positions at some point in their careers, and IR programs are mostly echo chambers of endorsement for top officers like Secretary Kerry. For this reason, historians, sociologists, and even journalists are often more astute observers of American foreign policy than are professors.

Miles Townes
Arlington, Va.

Brain Slaves

Siri Hustvedt’s lecture on the treatment of hysteria [“I Wept for Four Years and When I Stopped I Was Blind,” Readings, December] should encourage us to think about the great quantities of money spent on studies of the brain, and the paltry amounts spent on studies of the mind. In spite of all that neuroscientists have learned about the brain and its estimated 86 billion neurons, they still don’t have a working theory about how the brain converts those neurons’ immense computational capacity into an ability to perform the most fundamental human activities: solving problems, making decisions, building civilizations, creating art, and connecting with other people.

Al Galves
Las Cruces, N.M.