Manhattenhedge

July 5, 2017

A few years ago, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the distinguished head of the Hayden Planetarium, became aware that NYC, because its streets were set out on a grid, some of them, indeed most of them, lined up pretty well with the setting sun around the summer equinox.  He gave the event the name Manhattanhenge, as the sun preformed the same function as at Stonehenge—it marked the summer solstice. The setting sun doesn’t line up at Manhattanhenge as precisely as it does at Stonehenge—it lines up 22 days before and 22 days after the equinox, and because the streets are a lot wider than the narrow passage, we get to see it four times a year, twice in May and twice in July. The next occurrence of Manhattanhenge is this July 12.  What was once a non-event has become a real New York adventure. People come from all over the word just to see the sunset. And they come to take pictures. Some of the biggest, most expensive cameras in the world take a picture of Manhattanhenge at least once in their lifetime.

Now, one of the best places to take your picture of Manhattanhenge is on the bridge over 42nd Street. The street lines up about as well as any street in Manhattan, and there is a lot of famous buildings to see, and there is a bridge over 42nd street that gives you an excellent view of the whole proceedings. The only trouble is the area gets very crowded and there is all that traffic anyway on 42nd street.  But this is where I live. I can go past 42nd street every day, and I could watch the sun set every day if I wanted to. (Of course, you can watch the sunset too.)

I was trying to take the best damn picture of Manhattanhenge that anyone has ever taken, and I think I succeeded. Take a look at the picture in the July 3 entry. Note I said July 3 and not July 12. I’m nine days ahead of time. Yet the sun appears to be setting. How did I do that? I’ll tell you in a minute. Let’s just take in the whole picture. At first glance, you just see the top half of the picture, where the sun is actually setting. It takes you a while to find the lower half of the frame. Low and behold: there is a car there with its roof dividing the picture in two. The top half, sure, holds the main event; but the bottom half takes in the rest of the world. That squat shape reflected in the glass is the UN, pal. Also in the picture is yours truly and some beautiful clouds. While the camera points west, the view in the car window is east, out across the East River, Long Island, the Atlantic Ocean, and Europe.  (Okay, you might have trouble making out Europe. But that really is the UN over there.)

Go back to the top half and look at the car roof. The reflection of the sun is continued down 42nd Street and on to the roof of the car. It holds the picture together, gives it a center. We follow the sun down 42nd Street and on to the buildings. The sun is blazing. On its fiery way to the other side of the planet. I took this picture at 8:20 July 3. Sunset is at 8:30. Why does the sun look like it is setting. Why can you even see the sun? if it is setting on July 3, it has passed 42nd Street.

Truth is, you are seeing the reflection of the sun as it shines off the glass windows of the newly refurbished 42nd Street. The sun is further north. 42nd street used to be the province of porno stores and heroin addicts. Now you can get a fix of Tex-Mex food on the corner and go see a show. Come and see those dancing feet. Where there is always light. 42nd Street. Just remember to bring your camera. Go see if you can take a better picture than I did.

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2 Responses to “Manhattenhedge”

  1. extrasimile Says:

    Good question, John, and the short answer is: I don’t know. But I think the answer to your question is, no, Manhattanhenge only functions when the sun is at it northernmost position in the sky. Does Stonehenge function at all the seasons or only at the summer solstice? I’m guessing it’s the latter.

  2. John Looker Says:

    Well, I’m pleased to say this is fascinating Jim. Living in England I’ve seen Stonehenge several times, and indeed other rings of standing stones in Britain and Ireland. I’ve visited NYC two or three times and, specifically, the UN building where I went for meetings. I could not have guessed then that o would later get to know a local resident a bit through something that was going to be invented with the name the Internet.
    Your 3July picture makes greater sense now. It’s not just a photo of a city street in lat afternoon but a pictorial essay in human history, geography, governance and theology. Wow – what you can do with that camera of yours!
    But I’m puzzled: you make no reference to the autumn equinox or winter solstice. Does Manhattenhenge not function just the same at these seasons? I’m guessing that it could not pick up the setting sun in winter, for that event would be too far south and 42nd street runs sort of west north west. But the winter dawn looking sat? And how about the autumn equinox (dawn and sunset) if it works in May?


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