Twice a year the sun’s golden orb shines straight down Manhattan’s east-west streets in New York City, shooting rays from the Hudson to the East rivers, framed by skyscrapers much the way the rising summer solstice sun is framed by the megaliths of Stonehenge.
“Manhattanhenge,” as the phenomenon is called, occurs at 8:16 p.m. on May 30, 2012, and will happen again on July 11 at 8:24 p.m. as the sun starts edging back from the summer solstice, which occurs on June 20 this year. This perfect alignment with Manhattan’s cross-town streets can be seen especially well on the wide, two-way ones, with the best views along 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th streets.
“What will future civilizations think of Manhattan Island when they dig it up and find a carefully laid out network of streets and avenues? Surely the grid would be presumed to have astronomical significance, just as we have found for the pre-historic circle of large vertical rocks known as Stonehenge, in the Salisbury Plain of England,” wrote Neil deGrasse Tyson, the head astronomer for New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, in a release about the occurrence.
“For Manhattan, a place where evening matters more than morning, that special day comes twice a year,” he noted. On May 29 and July 12 this year, the setting sun will align “precisely with the Manhattan street grid, creating a radiant glow of light across Manhattan’s brick and steel canyons, simultaneously illuminating both the north and south sides of every cross street of the borough’s grid. A rare and beautiful sight.”
That’s what deGrasse Tyson calls the “half grid,” as in half the setting sun will precisely align; tonight, May 30, the full sun will align. Whether the clouds lift so as to afford today’s Manhattanites a glimpse is another matter.
As far as New York’s original inhabitants, the Lenape and other tribes, are concerned, we are that future civilization. When the Munsee trolled these shores and waters, Manhattan was but a tree-covered isle inhabited by various tribes, the Manhattans and the Lenape being part of that group. Their claim to fame in Euro-centric parlance is its alleged sale, for $24 in beads and trinkets, to the Dutch in the 1600s, as detailed in the 2011 book First Manhattans: A History of the Indians of Greater New York, by Robert S. Grumet (University of Oklahoma Press).
The Munsee Indians’ lands stretched south past the Jersey Shore into today’s Delaware, according to the book, as far north as the Berkshires in Massachusetts and westerly to the Poconos in Pennsylvania. Today’s children learn all about the Lenape in the fourth grade.
As deGrasse Tyson notes, the sun only rises and sets due east and west twice a year, on the first days of spring and fall.
“Had Manhattan’s grid been perfectly aligned with the geographic north-south line, then the days of Manhattanhenge would coincide with the equinoxes. But Manhattan’s street grid is rotated 30 degrees east from geographic north, shifting the days of alignment elsewhere into the calendar,” he states. “For best effect, position yourself as far east in Manhattan as possible. But ensure that when you look west across the avenues you can still see New Jersey. Clear cross streets include 14th, 23rd, 34th. 42nd, 57th, and several streets adjacent to them. The Empire State building and the Chrysler building render 34th street and 42nd streets especially striking vistas.”