Jeff Byles, author, community revitalization consultant, and former AN editor, dies at 51


Jeff Byles, author, community revitalization consultant, and former AN editor, dies at 51

(Dustin Koda)

Jeffrey Charles Byles died in March at the age of 51. He was an author, community revitalization consultant, and an associate editor and managing editor of The Architect’s Newspaper from 2008–10.

Julie Iovine, who was AN’s executive editor during Jeff’s tenure, gave a eulogy at his memorial service. In it, she called Jeff a “Modern Angel” and recounted their working relationship:

At the time, The Architect’s Newspaper was a scrappy creative publication: prone to chaos and desperate measures to meet the soaring ambitions, the latest news demands, the deadlines, and the bills to get out the next issue—May it not be the last! While I wrangled with various charged personalities and tempting scoops that constantly hovered just beyond common sense, Jeff did almost everything else, quietly, efficiently, without ever a grumble.  

Jeff was without question one of the most brilliant and all-around informed persons I have ever met. Once a week, we’d have a meeting to plan features and specials for upcoming issues. We’d sneak out of the office to the Pain Quotidian on Chambers or the new Japanese bakery that had opened downstairs. What could have been the tedium of a work schedule meeting, with Jeff became these inspiring conversations about transformative ideas, promising new approaches and projects with the potential to truly reveal how cities, how societies actually worked. He seemed to know about the latest thinking and thinkers on everything everywhere—and he knew how to find their information!

Jeff was born in 1971 in Portland, Oregon, and was raised in Lake Oswego, Oregon. After graduating from Lake Oswego High School in 1989, he obtained his undergraduate degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley and further honed his writing talent with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Jeff settled permanently in New York City in the late 1990s.

Jeff’s professional life exhibited his brilliant insight and research in fields of architecture, urbanism, and culture that was equally matched with his elegant writing. Jeff authored Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition (2005). Urban theorist and historian Mike Davis wrote an endorsement of the book: “Urban design, it turns out, is as much about subtraction as addition. With matchless wit, Jeff Byles explores the American obsession with demolishing our architectural past. He’s the poet laureate of those unsung heroes: the ‘unbuilders.’”

A whiteboard collage presented to Jeff upon his departure from AN. (Courtesy Denisha Williams)

AN editor in chief Aaron Seward, who worked with Jeff as an associate editor, had this to say about him:

Jeff was unassuming. He wasn’t one to wave his accomplishments in your face. I remember him offhandedly mentioning his book, Rubble, by dismissing it as merely more ‘demolition porn.’ It wasn’t until years later that I checked out a copy and realized it’s a deeply researched and authoritative history on an often-overlooked dimension of the built environment in the United States. As a colleague he was utterly dependable and completely professional. He fit the archetype of the managing editor to a T, but there was so much more to him that you’d never know unless you pried it out of him or stumbled across it by accident—like the fact that Kurt Cobain was once photographed wearing Jeff’s band T-shirt. His band was called Dumbhead. Yeah, that’s another thing: in the ‘90s he was an accomplished grunge rocker. And though you’d assume he was a bass player—steady, holding it together like he did at AN—he actually played ferocious lead guitar.”

Jeff also co-authored with Anne Freebee A History of Design from the Victorian Era to the Present (2011). In addition to his writings in AN, he published feature articles and critical reviews in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Metropolis, Modern Painters, Cabinet, The Believer, and other publications. Jeff also lectured internationally on architecture, landscape, and the future of the city. Jeff’s expertise in public design and community revitalization informed his leadership roles in research initiatives, design competitions, and public programs at the Van Alen Institute in 2012 and 2013. Jeff served since 2014 as a Director of The Fine Arts Federation of New York, where he championed the importance and advancement of public design.

As a certified planner, author, editor, and community revitalization consultant Jeff dedicated his efforts to the belief that communities can be inspired and renewed through the power of place. His experience culminated in working together with his wife, Denisha Williams, to build Being Here Landscape Architecture & Environmental Design, PLLC, where Jeff in his role as partnership director worked collaboratively with public and private-sector partners to help communities create ecological, social, and economic vitality.

Throughout his life Jeff expressed his love of music as a gifted guitarist and entertained many at shows in bands Dumbhead and others during his teens and twenties. In his free hours at home in New York, Jeff continued to record his own music and was a beloved member of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church choir.

Jeff was predeceased by his father Charles Byles. Jeff is survived by his spouse Denisha Williams, son Marley, and mother Nancy Byles all of New York City.