Grady Clay, An Urban Visionary

When Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, perhaps the most significant book on American urbanism in the 20th Century, it was not a surprise that one of the experts she quoted was Grady Clay. He was the urban affairs editor of The Courier-Journal, and anyone who cared about city planning knew Grady and the work he was doing in Louisville in those days. It must have been a good life for them; both were born in 1916, and each lived nine decades. (Jane Jacobs died in 2006; Grady died early Sunday morning.)

For those of us who had the good fortune to know him, Grady was that rarest of persons: a visionary and a pragmatist, he had strong opinions but was still able to debate with you and to remain friends. That’s a rare quality in our times. He also realized that some of the forces he opposed were far stronger and richer (the highway industry, for instance), but he was undeterred. 

Grady was a city boy, raised in Atlanta. His father was an eye doctor, and he graduated from Emory University. He was one of a number of talented journalists and photographers who assembled in Louisville in the days when Barry Bingham Sr. and Mark Ethridge were publisher and editor of The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times. (The list is a long one including Billy Davis, Carol Sutton, Bob Clark, John Ed Pearce, Joe Creason, William Mootz, Bob Crumpler, Hugh Haynie, Cary Robertson, Charles Whaley, Norman Isaacs, Joan Kay and George Gill, among many others.)

In those days, The Courier-Journal was routinely cited in the top 10 of American newspapers. Louisville was in a kind of golden age, too, when Charles Farnsley was its popular and visionary mayor, Skip Graham ran what was considered the most forward-looking public library system in the country and Robert Whitney propelled the Louisville Orchestra to the front ranks. When the city’s schools were integrated without incident in September 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower invited the superintendent, Omer Carmichael, to the White House to praise the achievement.

The Courier-Journal championed all of these things in print. And Grady’s stories picked up on some of the major domestic topics of the time: the impact of the interstate highway system, the post-war suburban housing boom, the urban renewal program and the decline of downtown as a community center and shopping destination. Grady viewed these trends with caution. He was among the first to articulate a reaction, what he called a “new urbanism” in an article he wrote for Horizon magazine. Those views drew him close to Jane Jacobs and others who understood the importance of street life, residential density, sidewalks and alleys, on-street shopping and mass transportation.   For all the novelty of subdivisions, suburban shopping centers and multi-lane freeways, the price was high. Even some suburbs today (notably Norton Commons) reflect the attractiveness of urban life, albeit in a rather Disneyesque way. The allure of cities also includes grit.

Grady had the good fortune to live to see some of his worst fears realized and then rejected by many. The rebirth of thriving urban areas like Main Street, the Waterfront  and NuLu, as well as the sectors along Frankfort Avenue and Bardstown Road are successful for all the reasons he predicted. He continued to express this vision from the pages of Landscape Architecture, a quarterly he edited for nearly 20 years after he left The Courier-Journal. So influential was Grady Clay that the newspaper continued to have strong urban affairs editors, first with Doug Nunn (who left to lead the University of Louisville’s Urban Studies Center) and Don Ridings (who became director of the city-county planning commission). Sheldon Shafer continues that tradition, a veteran of three decades covering urban topics who knows more about Louisville and its recent history than almost anyone he covers.

Charles Birnbaum, who runs the Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington issued this statement upon Grady’s death: “During his 23 years as editor of Landscape Architecture magazine, Grady Clay not only straddled the co-dependency and sometimes arbitrary divide between urban and rural thinking and planning, but he was among the first to address such diverse topics as sprawl, historic preservation, watershed management, ecological design and roof gardens (or “roofscapes” as he called them) . Travelling with his Leica, and later a Kodak (the Leica came from his dad who was an ophthalmologist who used it to photograph the eye), he taught Landscape Architects how to see the American cultural landscape—in all of its rich, sometimes messy and complex dimensions. His goal: informed, sympathetic, research-based change, that insured continuity of history and culture.”

There is a monument to this remarkable visionary in Washington, D.C. In the late 1970s, Grady was chosen to chair the panel of judges for the Vietnam Memorial, a process that was almost as controversial as the war itself. Clay preferred the long black wall of marble designed by Maya Lin, a 21-year-old student at the Yale School of Architecture, and the judges agreed with him. However an outspoken group of opponents, led by millionaire H. Ross Perot, championed a more traditional model, a statue of three soldiers that was very lifelike. In time it was added to the site, which is adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial. While well known, the Frederick Hart statue has long failed to inspire the emotion and awe of Maya Lin’s tribute, which contains the names of all 58,000 people killed in the Vietnam era.

Besides the monument, and all the articles and ideas that became part of our city, Grady left something else behind: those wonderful radio broadcasts on WFPL (“Crossing the American Grain”) and the book by that title that Butler Books published a decade ago. You can listen to him here, read his wisdom and remember the challenge he laid down for us as we envision Louisville’s future.

At the behest of Mayor Greg Fischer, an ambitious group of citizens is at work imagining what our city can be. Grady would approve of this, but he would admonish them to learn from past mistakes. There is much to be gained by doing so.

Keith Runyon, former Courier-Journal editorial page editor, was a longtime friend and colleague of Grady Clay.

Comments