“Man plans, and God laughs.”
That’s an old Jewish axiom that Jeremy Nowak—public intellectual, Philadelphia civic icon, and our Chairman here at The Citizen—liked to say. He’d chortle at the vicissitudes of fate, while always modeling for us the wisdom in daring it. Jeremy passed away on Saturday, after suffering a massive heart attack on July 11. He was 66 years old.
It’s telling that Jeremy’s heart gave out, for it was in constant overuse. He was all heart. Yes, Jeremy was brilliant; as his recent book, The New Localism, attests, he had more sui generis ideas, knew more about the plight and potential of the American city, and saw deeper connections between policy and people than anyone on our public stage.
I suspect that even his absence will make us want to be better citizens, and better to one another. “The future,” he wrote, as if challenging us, “belongs to the problem-solvers.”
But what set Jeremy so far apart from other original thinkers was that heart, just how much he wanted to make things better for others. His withering criticisms—around here, “getting Jeremy’d” was a thing—could be unsettling, sure, but they were also expressions of deep love: He just cared so damn much, about his city, about his fellow citizens, about his family, and, especially, about the sunken state of our public discourse.
“The city needs a counter-narrative,” he told me one spring day in 2013 at a Starbucks. I’d left The Daily News the year before, frustrated by the thought that, if someone were to pick up my newspaper, they’d think that the city was either stuck in a time warp, or that it basically sucked. A couple of us, inspired and bankrolled by philanthropist Ajay Raju, started blogging about ways to make Philadelphia better. That’s when I got summoned to Starbucks.
“I like what you’re doing,” Nowak said, eschewing small talk, as usual. “I’ll raise money for you, write for you, and chair your Board, if you’re committed to doing something different, exploring smart ideas and building a real Town Square. We need to change the story of Philadelphia.”
In the span of one Cappuccino—grande, non-fat with a triple shot of espresso—he encapsulated a vision I didn’t know I had until he’d so succinctly articulated it. The Citizen was made real. Ever since, he’s cajoled and berated all of us to stay true to that vision, and not to fall prey to chasing eye balls or clicks. In effect, he lobbied us to approach our work as he did his life: with oceanic curiosity, relentless empathy, and intellectual iconoclasm.
Jeremy was for what works and against what doesn’t; he was offended by hypocrisy and political showmanship, and he’d let the practitioners of such in our midst know that he was on to them. But—and this is critical—Jeremy was never cynical. He was a growling, often cantankerous idealist, someone who, though he’d boast that he’d read every book on the subject of genocide ever written, nonetheless dedicated his life’s work to lifting up the least of these.
What set Jeremy so far apart from other original thinkers was just how much he wanted to make things better for others. He just cared so damn much, about his city, about his fellow citizens, about his family, and, especially, about the sunken state of our public discourse.
Which gets us to his background. You might know him as the founding CEO of The Reinvestment Fund, which was way ahead of its time. Now, the “business for good” mantra has become fashionable; back in the mid-‘80s, though, Jeremy built a financial institution that, in effect, raised money from corporations and wealthy individuals, lending it to developers who built affordable housing and grocery stores in distressed neighborhoods.
“Our idea was that with technical help, regular people could organize money like a community organizer does with people,” Jeremy explained to The Inquirer in 1995.
In the process, he discovered that seemingly intractable problems might not be quite so intractable. The roadblock, he’d like to say, was that liberals want results without accountability, while conservatives want accountability…and could care less about the result. He became an evangelist for practical inner-city problem-solving, and for the power of doing bold things.
If there’s one through line, it’s that: In everything Jeremy did, he went big or went home. When then-Mayor John Street called? Jeremy penned the ambitious and controversial Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, declaring war on urban blight when others in the poverty industrial complex had thrown up their hands. When he took over the William Penn Foundation, he could have overseen the usual portfolio of grants and programs. But that wouldn’t remake his city. So, in a town that historically plays kick the can down the road, he took on the state of our education system, with all its entrenched interests—and suffered the predictable slings and arrows.
Whether you agreed with him or not, you had to respect his mettle and wish we had more like him. He led with his chin in a city where leaders too often bob and weave.
So, yes, Jeremy was a big thinker and a community treasure, winner of The Philadelphia Award in 1995, the city’s highest civic honor. But he was also a Philly street kid, born and raised at 7th and Girard, the son of a no-nonsense small business owner who, when Jeremy was 12, reached across the dining room table and smacked his son across the face, saying only, “Your teacher called today. I don’t want to get another call about your behavior.” He told that story at another one of our Starbucks meetings, while bemoaning the lack of discipline in our schools. “I never misbehaved again,” he said, smiling, leaving unsaid the object lesson: Sometimes we progressives too easily discount Old World instincts.
Jeremy was never cynical. He was a growling, often cantankerous idealist, someone who, though he’d boast that he’d read every book on the subject of genocide ever written, nonetheless dedicated his life’s work to lifting up the least of these.
He was no-nonsense, like his dad, and a moralist at heart: Once, as recounted by Jason Fagone in the pages of Philadelphia magazine, he bought a nuisance liquor store just to shut it down; rather than sell the liquor license for $75,000, he publicly burned it, in “an act of creative citizenship” that “marked a high point in my life.”
That’s who Jeremy was, a speaker of truth to power even when he became powerful. And he was many other things as well: a hippie back in the day, (you should see the long-haired photos), a clown—yes, an actual clown!—and a Philly sports fan in that perpetual love/hate dance with our teams. He was, by turns, joyous, dour, hilarious and profane. His personality filled rooms; he lived big, and hated when his city made itself small.
For me, he was a mentor, friend, and source of anxiety. He was so smart, so demanding, so principled, it prompted unease: How could I ever measure up? We went at it at times; perhaps the nicest thing he ever said to me, which waters my eyes today, was, “You do a great job of handling my mishagos.”
Here’s what I know: We’d be a much better city if we had more people with Jeremy Nowak’s mishagos. At The Citizen, we’re heartbroken, and worried about the future of a city with no Jeremy Nowak in it, calling it out, urging it to its best self. But go back and read his Citizen columns or pick up, as I just did, The New Localism, and thumb through its pages. You will hear that voice, as I just did, and feel inspired by the eloquent example of his life. I suspect that even his absence will make us want to be better citizens, and better to one another. “The future,” he wrote, as if challenging us, “belongs to the problem-solvers.”
Jeremy is survived by his wife, Jano Cohen; daughter, Jessica Cohen-Nowak; son, Adam Cohen-Nowak; brother, Edward Nowak; and sister, Nancy Nowak.
Funeral services for Jeremy will be held on Friday August 3, at 10 a.m., at Drexel University’s Main Building auditorium, 3141 Chestnut Street. Donations can be made to the Mastery Charter Foundation—Jeremy Nowak Scholarship; Lankenau Hospital Fund #5121 for the Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit; and Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation.