Noted Journalist, Urbanist Grady Clay Dead at 96

Journalist Grady Clay, who wrote about landscape architecture and urban planning, died Sunday in Louisville, according to sources close to his family. He was 96.

Clay grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Emory University and a master’s degree from Columbia University. He was the real estate editor and the urban affairs editor for the Courier-Journal until 1966, but his profile extended far beyond Louisville.

Clay was an authority on urban design. He worked with notable urbanists, including Jane Jacobs (he’s quoted in her seminal ‘Death and Life of Great American Cities,’ predicting the damage Intereste 65 would do to the then-booming shoe district on East Market St). He also served as the editor of Landscape Architecture Quarterly and was president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors.

The introduction to his papers, which are archived at the University of Louisville, lists Clay’s notable accomplishments:

He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1947; a research associate to the Joint Center for Urban Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1960-1961; and a Guggenheim Fellow between 1973 and 1974. He has lectured extensively in universities both in the United States and abroad and was visiting professor at the University of Kentucky, Northwestern University, the University of Salzburg, Austria, and at the University of Louisville.

One of Clay’s more high-profile appointments was to the jury that selected the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

“He was the chair of the jury and then participated in and, I’m sure at some level, guided Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam War Memorial which transformed memorial architecture and the way we commemorate events of historical significance,” says  Executive Editor of the Architect’s Newspaper Alan Brake, also a native Louisvillian.

In 2009, the Congress for New Urbanism awarded Clay the Athena Medal, taking special note of a forward-looking piece, Metropolis Regained, he wrote for Horizon Magazine in 1959.

[It] critiqued the hollow, highway-connected, Futurama-inspired contemporary vision of the city and described an inchoate rediscovery (primarily among journalists and critics) of the timeless traditional view of the city. In words described as “eerily similar” to the Charter of the New Urbanism, which followed more than 35 years later, Clay defined the principles of a group he identified as New Urbanists. “We believe in the city, they would say, not in tearing it down. We like open space, but hold that too much of it is just as bad as too little. We want that multiplicity of choice that the city has always offered, but is now in danger of losing,” wrote Clay. “I can only say that all great movements start in murmurs and that I can hear murmurs.”

“He was seeing things and writing about topics and recording the kind of observations that now really guide urban planning, landscape architecture and urbanism more broadly today,” says Brake. “He was way, way ahead of the curve.”

Clay married his wife, architect Judith McCandless in 1976, and the two lived in Crescent Hill until Clay’s death.

In the 1990s, Clay recorded a series of commentaries on urban issues for WFPL, titled ‘Crossing the American Grain.’ They’re collected in a book by the same name.

Listen to his commentaries here

Clay’s writings in and on his home city of Louisville are notable for their clarity and their incisiveness. He wrote a treatise on alleyways, examining several in Louisville (including: Auerbacher Court; Gravin Place; Rubel Park; and Yarmuth Garden) and suggesting ways they could be improved. Last year, in an interview with WFPL, when asked about his examinations of alleys, an often overlooked feature of cities, Clay said, “They serve a useful purpose. They communicate at length parts of a city that couldn’t easily be reached otherwise…Whenever I’d go on an assignment [in the 1970s], if I had a little extra time, I’d just go check the alleys and see what they were like.”

Clay’s book Close-Up offers a map’s legend for modern American cities, giving even the most novice urbanist the ability to recognize defining traits of urban design. In it, he writes why cities should be examined and understood, by both typical residents and long-time journalists, who have devoted their careers to better understanding the places they live.

“A city is not as we perceive it to be by vision alone, but by insight, memory, movement, emotion and language,” he wrote. “A city is also what we call it and becomes as we describe it.”

(Update:  Here’s former Courier-Journal editorial page editor Keith Runyon’s remembrance of Clay.)

Gabe Bullard

Gabe Bullard is the director of news and editorial strategy.

@gbullard

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