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.