First off, nobody around here calls it the Esplanade. It’s the Promenade. And that substitution is essential evidence of its Brooklynness: everything changes when you cross the bridge, everything takes a secret name. No knowledge but local knowledge. Tell us we’re a suburb of Manhattan and we’ll blare our status as ‘the fourth largest city in the U.S.A.’ (how long ago was that last true?) and decry the fixed election of 1898 which annexed us to Greater New York, robbed our essence. Yet every day Brooklynites explain that they’re headed in ‘to the city’ – meaning Manhattan. And, much as Canadians huddle their cities for warmth along our border, one of our primary splendors, the Heights, and the splendor within that splendor, the Esplanade/Promenade, not-so-secretly concerns itself with promixity, access, a great view of the Manhattan skyline.
The Heights leak slightly downward, along Remsen Street, along Montague, along Clark – burnished brownstone streets, among the city’s oldest neighborhoods, full of Edith Wharton vibes, but nothing to advertise the hidden Promenade. The park is fundamentally local, intimate, not Grant’s Tomb, not the Empire State. It’s receptive, an opening, a site or situation, rather than a monument. We who grew up within reach have spent our whole lives strolling to it, accompanied or alone – with a visitor in tow we’ll underplay it as a destination, knowing they’ll be walloped by how the whole harbor opens up – bridges, river, chugging ferries. And the skyline, oh yes. The teeth of the city, the crystal ship, the broken grammar of styles, the frozen history in the glimmering spires and pragmatic overgrown cereal boxes. The Promenade balances an elegant Brooklyn indifference – hey, we’re here to meander and flirt, our finest homes turn their back to the view – but it is the indifference of privilege. Anyone walking the Promenade knows the skyline belongs to Brooklyn. It can’t be seen from Manhattan, after all. Not like this.
The Promenade is where you go to eat Manhattan with your eyes. Your eyes, though, are bigger than your stomach, bigger than your mouth. Go and eat it and it’s always still there, like you haven’t made a dent.
Kids spit. They always do, just because. My brother and I, later my friend Evan and I: we spit. Hit a car, try to catch a bit of wind and arc it over the northbound traffic on the BQE, on the sulky lip of roaring traffic just below the cobbled walkway. Try it now yourself and learn that you’ll always fail, though a kid won’t quit trying. Or crouch at the southern edge of the Promenade, hands and knees through the bars, and fix your eyes on the tallest eighteen-wheeled truck coming your way – invite the illusion that it’s too tall to fit under the Promenade and is about to collide with your feet. Try it, it’s a thrill, believe me. But why choose? Combine both acts: spit on the truck as it bellows underneath.
I know the place as a series of moments, personal, historical. The Tall Ships of the Bicentennial; I stood with my grandmother, trying to bear the meaning of the 200 years, which didn’t stand a chance beside the insectoid marvel of masts flooding the harbor. Next, I painted my first oil painting on an easel on the Promenade, in sixth grade. Of the Brooklyn Bridge, of course – my allegiance was absolute, I had to snub the skyline. A year or two later I picked up Norman Mailer’s trail on Montague Street and followed him down to the Promenade as he walked his granddaughter. He turned and caught me, following too close in my awe.
Then teenage stuff: I saw a rock band shooting a video on the promenade one morning, in the debut year of MTV – I didn’t even know what a video was, but they let me hang on the outskirts. The vain guitarist checking his hair using the reflective plate of his electric guitar as a mirror, that’s what I remember. It’s universal, the notion that anyone would be glorified to be caught with the skyline as their backdrop, as though they only happened to be there. In those years I got to know the Promenade at night, for potsmoking and graffiti writing, but most of all for that faux-worldly teenage prowling, spying on lovers, dodging imaginary pursuits, pretending to spot rivals and prey, nights when it seems anything could happen and nothing ever does. The north end of the Promenade was a mellow gay pickup zone in those days. (Later I’d read James Purdy’s novels of the 50’s and 60’s and understand how deep the tradition ran.) One night in my High School years I found my own painting teacher from Music & Art staked out with a friend on one of those darkened benches. He said hello, unashamed. The Promenade was like that, a zone apart, a place to learn that night- and day-time rules weren’t the same.
On September 13th, two years ago, I marched – though it was more of a weary parade – with a few hundred Arab immigrants and their supporters, from Atlantic Avenue to the Promenade. There, into the still steaming, still stinking eye of mist and smoke rising from the charred pit in lower Manhattan, an Arabic singer keened a lament across the water while we all listened and cried. I’d been visiting the Promenade compulsively in the twenty-four hours preceding, and that song gave me some peace, or at least broke the compulsion’s rhythm.
The Promenade is where when you go to eat Manhattan it is always still there, uneaten, yet that week it wasn’t, the foul world had had a bite to show us what we took for granted.
Yet the Promenade is where we went to confirm our persistence, our long existence, and soon enough the wax of melted candles was gone from the ironwork, and the strollers were back to their mingled privacies, their various agendas. The roar of the BQE underneath had never vanished, and here’s a kid spitting again, thinking he’ll get it over the roadway, get it to drop down to the shipyards. Worth a try.
The Promenade is a place you take a lover to show her what you love, about your city, about your life.
The Promenade is where I’ll always go to prove I’m that twistiest of New Yorkers, the Brooklynite, he who is a little apart, but adamantly proud of what he’s apart from – always of the city, always gazing at it from afar.
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Lincoln Center Review, 2004