I was walking through Center City Philadelphia, right past City Hall, when I noticed they were replacing the sidewalks around the eastern face of the building. John Wanamaker’s statue stood out amongst a sea of debris:
Who was John Wanamaker? I remember “Wanamaker’s” as a kid, and I remember the way in which older family members spoke of it. Not too differently from the way many people talk about Amazon today. It was something like the Amazon of its time.
John Wanamaker’s statue/memorial is probably my favorite in Philadelphia because I think it perfectly captures the spirit of his time and the spirit of Philadelphia in that one of the most important individuals in the city’s history is remembered simply as “citizen”.
What made Wanamaker worth remembering in this way wasn’t his invention of the American department store. It wasn’t his introduction of standard, fixed prices and no-fault return policy for customers. It wasn’t the grand and resilient Wanamaker building, right across the street from where this statue now stands, constructed as a resilient structure to enliven and ennoble the public’s experience of community life—with its organ and eagle and Christmas light shows—as much as it served to showcase and sell merchandise. And it wasn’t simply that he was one of the city’s last great titans of industry and commerce before the hollowing out of Philadelphia after the second world war. We chose to remember him first for being a citizen.
It seems to me that there’s a lot there to unpack; a lot left unsaid but so much implied by that single word left to explain the entirety of the man whose embodied memory stands atop that pedestal.