Remembering Jeremy Nowak
As many of you know, my good friend and business partner Jeremy Nowak passed away on July 28th at the age of 66 due to complications from a heart attack.
There has been an outpouring of grief and appreciation in Jeremy’s beloved hometown of Philadelphia (Jeremy Nowak, 66, prominent Philadelphia investor, advocate, commentator by Chris Palmer & Diane Mastrull • He Will Not Rest by Larry Platt). And for good reason. Jeremy lived a remarkable life in the service of his city and, more broadly, disadvantaged places and people in the United States and beyond. He had a deep, unwavering commitment to making a difference in people’s lives.
Jeremy and I had known each other for decades, but we had become exceptionally close over the past eighteen months. We co-authored a book, The New Localism: How Cities Thrive in the Age of Populism. We co-started a company, New Localism Advisors. We had just founded a Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University in Philadelphia, which Drexel President John Fry — a good friend — has graciously renamed the Nowak Metro Finance Lab.
I learned a lot substantively during this period… but even more about this remarkable man.
As I remarked at his memorial, Jeremy was, uniquely, both a Wise Man and a Wise Guy.
He had, as everyone will attest, a towering intellect. As our book showed, he had the capacity to paint the big canvas and offer piercing insights and imaginative solutions. He was already teasing out the outline of our next book, Financing the Inclusive City.
But he was also a craftsman who excelled at creating intricate financial tools to drive capital to people and places that need it most. As some of you know, Jeremy and I were working closely with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — and mayors in Louisville, Oklahoma City and South Bend — to invent a new market tool, an Investment Prospectus, so cities could realize the full potential of a recent federal tax incentive that focuses on bringing private investment to low-income Opportunity Zones.
As the founder of The Reinvestment Fund, Jeremy was intrigued by the potential to match cities, communities and capital. But he strongly believed that cities could enhance the social impact of private capital only if they upgraded the skills of children and young adults who live in or near these Zones and strengthened the capacity of local institutions — neighborhood development corporations, skills intermediaries — to enable economic and social efforts to be carried out with market credibility and community legitimacy.
Our Prospectus, therefore, was meant to be both catalytic and challenging. And creating it required the kind of detailed, meticulous, painstaking data and analytic work that Jeremy enjoyed more than any person I have ever met.
But, make no mistake, Jeremy was also a Wise Guy. He was wonderfully irreverent. He had a playful sense of humor and a mischievous, infectious laugh. He had no patience for hypocrisy, for rigid ideology, for lazy thinking, on both the left and the right. He did not suffer fools or tolerate foolish statements.
He never held back. In 2002, he and I participated in the UK Urban Policy Summit hosted by Tony Blair. I begged him to behave. That lasted about a day. On a 7 am train between Manchester and Birmingham, Jeremy started muttering — first quietly, then more loudly — about British political leaders being hopeless centralizers, helpless policy tinkerers and (Jeremy’s favorite term) “bat-shit crazy” (mostly true). Everyone in our compartment was completely transfixed and I thought we were literally on the verge of being deported.
Our book tour since January has been a worthy repeat.
For me, Jeremy’s loss is intensely personal and painful.
Jeremy and I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours discussing, debating, co-writing, creating, inventing, collaborating. Every day with Jeremy was an intellectual adventure. There was such excitement to working together, an intoxicating mix of fun, purpose and possibility. With Jeremy, I felt I was doing the best, most impactful work of my professional career.
I always knew that Jeremy was the smartest person in the urban room. What I didn’t know was how generous, giving, supportive and loyal a person he was. I owe Jeremy’s wife, Jano, and his children, Jessica and Adam, a great debt of gratitude for sharing him with me these past 18 months. I got to see the side of Jeremy that they knew better than anyone.
I am fiercely committed to continuing the work that Jeremy and I started.
He was having the time of his life working with Mayor Garcetti’s Accelerator for America and its network of leading US mayors like Greg Fischer in Louisville, David Holt in Oklahoma City and Pete Buttigieg in South Bend. He loved visiting their cities, walking their streets, talking to leaders and residents alike. He was, at heart, a community organizer, who had found a big stage on which to exercise his gifts and skills.
He was over-the-moon excited about the new effort at Drexel. Since its inception in 1891, the University has stood at the intersection of theory and practice, and its location in University City, literally blocks away from 30th Street Station as well as a series of high-poverty neighborhoods, places it at the juxtaposition of prosperity and distress, innovation and inclusion.
The potential to work closely with Drexel colleagues like John Fry, Harris Steinberg, Lucy Kerman and Alan Greenberger — and Philadelphia’s incomparable network of reflective practitioners (including his closest friend, Ira Goldstein) — motivated and energized Jeremy immensely. He believed that we could “crack the code” with these remarkable people.
He was also very eager to engage with colleagues of ours from across the United States, Europe, Israel and beyond, many of whom we had met during the book-writing and book-touring stage.
Jeremy, in short, loved the work we were doing and loved the people with whom we were doing the work.
The day preceding Jeremy’s heart attack was a day of Grand Ambition. We spent 4 hours with Harris and our Drexel colleagues, plotting our new Metro Finance Lab. We then held a business meeting of our startup at our “company offices for the day” — first the Melrose Dinner on Snyder Avenue and then Dante & Luigi’s in South Philadelphia. It was a moveable feast arranged by a proud Philadelphian and one of those rare, expansive evenings when the potential for impact seems limitless and boundless.
In the coming weeks and months, I will be laying out ideas on a broad array of topics. My ruminations will draw from a deep treasure trove of memos and emails that Jeremy and I shared with each other. We had, like many songwriters, a backlog of songs that I look forward to bringing to the world. I will try to convey as best as I can Jeremy’s distinctive voice of realism and idealism, of compassion and respect, of community and capital that drove him and now inspires me.
Thank you for listening.