It’s time for New Yorkers to get excited about the setting sun.
It’s because Manhattanhenge is upon us. It can produce, when the weather cooperates, four of the most breathtaking New York sunsets of the year.
The name is a nod to the New Yorker at Stonehenge, the ancient rock structure in the English countryside which aligns with sunsets and sunrises during the summer and winter solstices. This pre-modern monument was purposely built for religious and spiritual reasons. By contrast, the New York Grid wasn’t designed with sunsets in mind, but it ended up working similarly. For four days, every May and July, it can bring people together to admire our special geographical location in the cosmos as the sun settles on the horizon, disappearing perfectly along the wide west-east corridors of the city.
An event like Manhattanhenge can shut down the entire borough, inviting people to celebrate an otherwise normal daily sunset.
As if New York couldn’t get any more magical, sunsets from Manhattanhenge light up the streets with a glow of deep tangerine and bubblegum pink, turning the busy streets into a place to stop and say “wow.”
“It’s so famous because it’s a beautiful sunset,” said Jackie Faherty, senior scientist and astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History. “The sun kisses the grid of one of the greatest cities, if not the greatest city in the world, and touches the entire corridor of the concrete jungle with these amazing golden hues. It is a beautiful thing.
When is Manhattanhenge?
You’ll have four chances to see it – twice in spring and twice in summer, on either end of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, June 21.
This Memorial Day long weekend, Manhattanhenge is happening twice:
Sunday, May 29, half sun at 8:13 p.m. EST.
Monday, May 30, full sun at 8:12 p.m.
Then, in July, you will have two more chances to see a perfect sunset:
Monday, July 11, full sun at 8:20 p.m.
Tuesday July 12, half sun at 8:21 p.m.
What is the difference between half sun and full sun?
According to Dr Faherty, this is a small but significant distinction – the half sun will look like the sun bisected and brushing the horizon, while the full sun, where the full orb touches the pavement, is the real star of Show.
Why does Manhattanhenge happen?
We are able to witness this celestial event due to a combination of the approaching summer solstice, the grid design of the city, and the natural shape that Manhattan Island has taken over of the last ice age.
Around 18,000 years ago, the massive ice cap atop North America began to melt, carving out Manhattan Island and the modern landscape on which the city was built.
“We believe Manhattan Island runs north to south. But it doesn’t actually run north to south; it runs northeast to southwest,” said Carol Krinksy, a historian of American architecture at New York University.
This orientation, combined with the street design, allows the setting sun from the west to present this spectacle, she said.
“The grid system was designed for Manhattan before there was even an official New York City,” Dr. Krinsky added. The Plan of the commissioners of 1811 set in motion blocks at 90 degrees for the official design of the city. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was primarily for the real estate market: most homebuyers don’t want to buy land cut at odd angles.
Thus, above 14th Street and below 155th Street, the city is cut into a grid. When the Earth tilts towards and then away from the Sun during the summer solstice, our beloved Manhattanhenge is the result. It also shows how structures built by people interact with the natural world.
“Things like this are deeply connected not just to the actual architecture of the universe around us, but to our interaction with it,” said Caleb Scharf, an astronomer at Columbia University. “The city is an extension of us.”
Dr. Scharf adds that, like Stonehenge, Manhattanhenge helps us find patterns in our surroundings and make sense of them.
“At some point someone is going to ask, ‘Why is this happening?'” he said. “’Wait a minute, oh, the sun doesn’t stay in the same place on the horizon all the time. Why is that?’ This can so often lead to those “Aha!” moments when we suddenly have this urge to actually explain what we’re seeing, instead of just saying, “Oh, that’s good.”
What are the best places to watch?
Luckily, anywhere in the grid system above 14th Street can give you some sort of view.
You also need to have a clear view of New Jersey and, adds Dr. Faherty, “you really have to be in the middle of the street to get the full effect, which is a little dangerous.”
Ideally, choose a street with wide avenues and a median you can safely stand and watch on. If there is a big hill, your view will be blocked.
Although almost everyone drives to 42nd Street, Dr. Faherty recommends 72nd Street instead. But if you want to join the crowds further downtown, Pershing Square is the vantage point, as is the area above Grand Central Station in the taxi line. While the New York Police Department tries to shut down viewing there every year, photographers flock to the location and it can be quite chaotic.
Manhattanhenge can also be seen outside of Manhattan. In Brooklyn or Queens, Dr. Faherty says there are a variety of places you can see straight across town to New Jersey. For the best off-island experience, she recommends Gantry State Park in Queens.
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