Remembering Charles Lockwood, lover of cities

  • Charles Lockwood

    Charles Lockwood

    Charles Lockwood was the author of articles and books about cities, architecture, real estate, and sustainability.

    Photo courtesy of Patrick Ciccone via The New York Times

Christopher Leinberger, Better! Cities & Towns

Charles Lockwood, an architectural historian, writer, and environmental sustainability consultant who made an impact on urban America, died of cancer Wednesday, March 28, in his home in Topanga Canyon in Southern California. His death, at 63, was reported in a New York Times article about his life and achievements. Here Lockwood’s longtime friend and collaborator, Chris Leinberger, reflects on what Charles has meant to the understanding and celebration of cities. 

Charles Lockwood came into my life when he was writing a free-lance story for the glossy monthly Los Angeles magazine. His subject was the overbuilding of the West LA high-rise condo market. Some developers felt that RCLCo, a real estate market research and advisory firm that I had just acquired from its founder, Bob Lesser, was singularly responsible for the overbuilding. In the view of critics, RCLCo had done this by telling all comers to build however much they wanted—the sky was the limit.  Since I was deep in debt after buying the firm, I was somewhat concerned about getting blamed for the end of the real estate world as we knew it.

Charles did not engage in yellow journalism, and the story turned out quite well.  But I was intrigued that Charles was being paid to write stories about real estate, and I liked having my firm asked about real estate by the media. I put him on retainer as our PR adviser. I found out, however, that writing for magazines like Los Angeles and serving as my PR adviser were, for Charles, means to an end—they paid the bills and allowed him to pursue his real love: how Americans were building our cities. As it turned out, that was my love as well. Thus began my apprenticeship as a writer, taking my instructions from the master, Charles Lockwood. 

His love of documenting how cities worked started while a student at Princeton, working on his senior thesis. In the New York Public Library, he had asked the reference librarian about books concerning the building of townhouses in Manhattan. It turned out that there was no book on the subject, so Charles decided to write it. 

Bricks and Brownstones: The New York Townhouse, 1783-1929, first published in 1973, became the classic on the topic and remained in print for the rest of his life. (It was revised, expanded, and updated by Rizzoli in 2003.) The book became the “brownstone bible” of the New York City revitalization movement of the late 20th century. 

Charles and I had dinner one night in Manhattan around 1988 at a grand restaurant. After we finished dinner, Charles gave me a tour of the Upper East Side from 42nd Street to 96th Street—from 9 PM until after midnight.  He pointed out the mix of incomes that coexisted there when it was first built in the late 19th century—gentry living on the avenues, servants living on the numbered streets. He pointed out why 96th Street became the divide between the rich Upper East Side and poor Spanish Harlem: the railroad tracks that were buried under Park Avenue by Cornelius Vanderbilt emerged above ground at 96th. 

Charles wrote a number of books about cities, such as Suddenly San Francisco: The Early Years of an Instant City (1978). His real interest, though, was sustainability, which was expressed in publications like The Green Quotient: Insights from Leading Experts on Sustainability (2003), a collection of his influential columns in Urban Land magazine. He also explored the world as a travel writer for the New York Times and numerous magazines. 

My education by Charles began with two articles we co-authored in The Atlantic Monthly in the late 1980s. One of them, “How Business is Changing America,” was the first national piece about the move of employment and retail, following housing, into the suburbs.  The very first phone call he and I got about the article was from Joel Garreau of The Washington Post, who had a new “beat” covering the suburbanization of metro Washington. Joel went on to write Edge Cities based upon the article, talking with both of us during the course of his research, and the country continued to learn about how insidious sprawl had become.

Charles and I were speaking at a National Trust for Historic Preservation conference about metropolitan growth trends shortly after the article came out. The first respondent after our presentation was Daniel Boorstin, one of the country’s finest historians and then Librarian of Congress. Boorstin’s reaction was “if the country is becoming like how Leinberger and Lockwood have outlined, I am going out back and slitting my wrists.”

Charles was also one of the first writers to focus on New Urbanism, attending the first Congress of New Urbanism in Alexandria in 1993. He introduced me to the movement, which led to my partnership and friendship with Robert Davis, the developer of Seaside and one of the founders of CNU. 

Charles’s last book was The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union (2011), with his brother John. He used the writing of the book to connect with his brother in a deeper way—and reconnect with the place of his birth toward the end of his far-too-short life. It also allowed him to get back to Washington to see his mother even more often. He adored his mother and always spoke about her in the most loving manner. 

One of the last things Charles said to me was “well, I am the first of us to go.” It is a tragedy that we lost him so early. He explained environmentally and socially sustainable ways of building our country.  He also made a significant difference in my life, and has left a large hole.

Charles was called Charlie by all of his friends, which I knew from the beginning of our friendship. But I always thought of him as having such style and graciousness, he was Charles to me.

Charles died in the arms of his husband, Carlos Boyd. 

Chris Leinberger is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, a professor in the Graduate Real Estate Development Program at the University of Michigan, and president of Locus, a national network of real estate developers and investors who advocate for sustainable, walkable urban development. His most recent book is The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream, reviewed in the October 2007 New Urban News.

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