Jane Holtz Kay’s seminal work, “Lost Boston,” is a thick, haunting catalogue of buildings and landscapes torn down or destroyed in Boston over the past 380 years. To study its carefully selected black-and-white photographs, poignant essays, and clever captions is to experience one of the greatest love letters to a city ever written.
Kay, who died this week at 74, idolized the city of her childhood in the 1940s and ’50s — a “place,” as she described it, “of smudged but endearing glamour,” a “maze of masonry and greenery.” And as much as she loathed urban planners whose idea of progress took the form of parking lots and office towers, she understood that part of living in an urban environment was embracing change. Neighborhood-focused development in Boston, she argued, proved that change could be “a creative act,” that there could be a “joy in city making.”
Kay earned a handful of professional titles: former architecture critic for the Globe and other publications, author, and committed preservationist. Her 1998 book “Asphalt Nation,” which examines how America’s love of the automobile desecrated its landscape during the 20th century, is a mainstay on college reading lists. But here she will be remembered, first and foremost, as a thinker who marveled at — and documented — Boston as it was, while at the same time dreaming of what the city could become.