Stories from the Eastern Promenade

Portland’s majestic park plays an important part in the narrative of the city.

Judy and Quincy visit the Eastern Promenade in Portland on a regular basis. They drive from across town. First, Judy chooses one of the benches overlooking Fort Allen Park and Casco Bay. She brings a tote with water and snacks and leaves that on the bench while she and Quincy take a little walk. And then they sit—and the memories flow. “I grew up on Munjoy Hill and used to come to the park all the time.” Judy says with a smile. “ I can still see myself climbing on the cannons.” She pours water for Quincy and gives him a snack. They sit and watch the people and the world go by.

Judy is warm and gracious and happy to have a conversation with passersby. Quincy greets everyone enthusiastically and watches every move Judy makes. “I don’t know what I’d do without him,” says Judy. And then it’s time to pack up the snacks and get Quincy home to Judy’s granddaughter who’ll be anxious to see her Quincy—a two-year-old Yorkie-Pomeranian mix. And Judy will likely tell her granddaughter about the special day she and Quincy had at the Eastern Promenade.

That is what the Eastern Promenade is all about.

If not for the forward thinking of Portland city engineer William Goodwin, who created the original plan for the Eastern Promenade in the late 1800s; if not for Portland Mayor Percival Baxter, who was an ardent proponent of public community spaces in the early 1900s; and if not for other progressive thinkers, policy makers, and good neighbors, the Eastern Promenade might not exist as we know it.

Not every park comes with a care manual. A document titled the Master Plan of the Eastern Promenade follows the written word of the Olmsted brothers—Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John C. Olmsted— acclaimed landscape architects and sons of world-renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The Olmsteds intricately detailed how the 77-acre park should look—from types of trees to proper benches—and also how it should make people feel. In 1989, the Eastern Promenade was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Shared passions and a revised City of Portland Master Plan led to a unique partnership between the city’s Parks, Recreation, and Facilities Department and Friends of the Eastern Promenade, a nonprofit community organization established in 2006. Their shared mission is to preserve the park’s significant historic public landscape, protect its environmental integrity, and enhance its recreational use.

Sally DeLuca grew up on the Eastern Promenade. She lived a few blocks away from the park in an apartment in a three-story building with her parents, two brothers, and four sisters. Sally’s memories are vivid. “Starting when I was five years old, the Eastern Promenade became my playground—all year round. Every morning in the summers we were sent off to the park.” At the time, there was a community pool, crafts and games, and other programs run by Portland Recreation staff. “We went home only if we got hungry and when the street lights came on. The Eastern Promenade was home away from home.”

One winter day DeLuca and her siblings started playing with spitballs and straws in the house. “Our parents caught us. Spitballs were glued all over the walls and ceilings. They told us we couldn’t live there any more. We would have to leave. We were devastated but without much hesitation we headed off for our favorite playground and safe place—the Eastern Promenade. We went to Fort Allen and dug caves in the snow banks and decided that’s where we would live. But we hadn’t eaten all day and it was getting colder and darker. We ran home and apologized to our parents.”

Today, Deluca is nearing retirement as the director of Portland Parks, Recreation, and Facilities. “My job now is to protect Portland’s parks and spaces where people play,” she says. “I want to make sure that all children have the opportunity to make memories like I did.” You will often find DeLuca sitting on a bench at the Eastern Promenade. “It is like going home. It’s a part of me.”

The beauty of the Eastern Promenade took Matthew Kennedy by surprise. “I first came to Portland when I accompanied my wife on a business trip,” says Kennedy, who was living in Florida at the time. “The first morning she went off to a meeting. I threw on my running shoes and set out from the Old Port, picking Fore Street more or less at random. I ran east, up the hill and around the bend, and for the first time I saw this magnificent park with a spectacular view of the ocean. I will never forget that moment; I was dumbfounded. Two years later my wife and I were living on Munjoy Hill. A couple of years later I was on Friends of the Eastern Promenade’s Board of Directors. A year later I was the board president. I am passionate about the Eastern Promenade. It still takes my breath away.”

I was on a sailboat when I first saw the Eastern Promenade. It was the end of a long and challenging sail from Eggemoggin Reach, off Brooklin. Pea-soup fog, rough and rolling seas, and rain were exhausting. Approaching Portland Harbor, the sun broke through the clouds and ahead was a welcoming stretch of green grass edging Casco Bay. I had finally met the Eastern Promenade. Years later my two sons would play at the park and watch the Fourth of July fireworks. Today, I am the executive director of Friends of the Eastern Promenade, working alongside passionate volunteer members of the FoEP’s Board of Directors who take their job as the stewards of the Eastern Promenade seriously and honorably, knowing the park forever celebrates and changes people’s lives.

You can’t help but notice that the Eastern Promenade is home to the most impressive display of park benches. I love benches. They are inviting, not confining—a place “to be.” Benches encourage conversations. They allow calm and the sorting out of thoughts. They demand nothing. Whoever invented the bench deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. Every one of the over 70 benches lining the upper sidewalks facing Casco Bay holds the story of someone’s life. An engraved plaque introduces us to someone we wish we had met and had time to share stories with—while sitting on a bench. While the natural beauty and open space of the Eastern Promenade are often what first attract us, the stories are what keep us coming back.