Remembering Jane Holtz Kay

Remembering Jane Holtz Kay

Jane Holtz Kay worked tirelessly for decades in the trenches of architecture and urban design criticism, historic preservation, civic activism and environmental journalism.


Jane Jacobs’s name often comes up in discussions of the viability of modern urban life. Understandably so, since her Death and Life of Great American Cities probably has had more influence on urban planning debates than any other single work. But there was another Jane—Holtz Kay—whose name comes up often in slightly smaller yet very influential circles. A Jane who worked tirelessly for decades in the trenches of architecture and urban design criticism, historic preservation, civic activism and environmental journalism and was, among many other distinctions, The Nation’s longtime architecture critic.

Perhaps it was her long admiration of Lewis Mumford, beginning with her 1960 Radcliffe senior thesis and first interview with him, that pushed her to range widely while paying close attention to the details of everyday life. She visited Mumford, physically and in her writing, several times over the decades. In her 1977 American Institute of Architects Journal interview she takes us inside Mumford’s work, legacy, household organization and daily life. She brings to life the breadth of his intellect, work habits and Amenian surrounds while also giving voice to Sophia—“wife, intellectual companion, life-support…breadwinning partner of his youth, the amanuensis of his old age.” But it was not a wholly blind devotion, as this splendidly succinct paragraph from her 1982 Christian Science Monitor review of his autobiography reveals:

“In his autobiography as in his life, Mumford’s far-reaching intellectual aspirations and pessimistic moral outlook bring him both success and failure — failure because it is our Joshuas, not our Jeremiahs, who bring society’s walls tumbling down; success because his reach for ethical suasion gave him access to the centuries.”

Jane Holtz Kay published scores of articles; idea pieces, reviews, interviews, opinion, criticism and critique ranging from architecture, building crafts and “car-burbs” to Olmsted, urban design and zoning—and many topics in between. Her publications alphabet ranged from AIA, Alternet and Appalachia to Sierra, Smithsonian and Technology and Urban Ecology, with contributions to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Columbia Journalism Review, Harvard Business Review, Ms., Orion, Preservation, The Progressive and Grist, among others. Her list of publications at The New York Times fills four webpages. Ditto for The Nation. She was the author of Lost Boston (1980), a remarkable architectural and social history march through centuries of destroyed heritage yet with hope about preservationist efforts. Its hundreds of evocative illustrations include a Park Street “T” subway station political poster—a homage to her liberal father’s 1950s failed Congressional bids; Preserving New England (1986 with Pauline Chase Harrell), a tour of landscape and townscape; and her most influential work, Asphalt Nation (1997), exploring the transportation waterfront, from the environmental destruction of our over-dependence on automobiles to the many promising reform efforts that were underway in the 1990s.

She walked the architecture beat for The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor and, of course, The Nation—where she reviewed buildings, plans, exhibits and many, many books beginning in 1973. She was a frequent face and clear voice on the lecture, conference and interview circuits and an occasional academic. Her writing style was jaunty yet superbly polished with masterfully crafted paragraphs and pages playing off against clever subtitles and catchy jargon.

In 1990 she helped Dorothea Hass launch WalkBoston and she remained close to the organization thereafter, part of her life-long involvement in pedestrianism. A pioneer advocacy group, it became a model for the formation of many similar groups across the United States over the next two decades.

So many damaging automobile and sprawl trends chronicled by Holtz Kay are still going in reverse; motor vehicle emissions increasing, a recent transportation act that guts many of the gains made under ISTEA and a Capitol still refusing to acknowledge or act upon climate change. Yet many of the promising movements which she praised and brought much-deserved attention to are bearing fruit; renewed interest in smart growth, transit revitalization—especially around rail, car-sharing and a renaissance of urban cycling and walking.

I was fortunate to have been acquainted with the two Janes beginning in the early 1990s and I benefitted greatly from talks and walks with each in their beloved neighborhoods. The two Janes met on at least one occasion and hit it off well, and Jacobs supplied a glowing blurb for the cover of Asphalt Nation. Perhaps they shared a sense of lonely sisterhood in a field dominated by men only beginning to open to feminist viewpoints and participation. Of slight build but strong voice, Holtz Kay was anything but strident, a model of tact when negotiating the shoals of intellectual and political conflict. If she had a dog in the Mumford-Jacobs fracas over differing approaches to urban planning, alluded to obliquely in the 1977 Mumford interview, it was kept closely tethered and muzzled against barking.

Holtz Kay paid great attention to detail—especially human detail, but on occasion a few of us “transportation junkies” among her friends wished that she might have passed a few pages or an assertion by us before the presses rolled. Still, Martha Bianco, after criticizing a few of Asphalt Nation’s “academic shortcomings,” wrote understandingly in a 1998 H-Net review:  

“Her mission is to urge readers to action, to help light the fires of anti-auto activism.… voices such as hers need to be heard if we are to avoid lapsing into a complacency that got us so mired in the car-dependent culture in the first place.”

In our vast and expanding universe, where theoretical physicists assure us that anything and everything is possible, I imagine a car-free corner and a café table where Mumford and the two Janes are seated—Holtz Kay between the other two to maintain the peace. Passers-by slow to eavesdrop on a most spirited argument over the redesign of the sublime gated community where they are now resident.

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