It’s time for New Yorkers to get really excited about the setting sun.
That’s because Manhattanhenge is on your doorstep. It can, if the weather cooperates, produce four of the most striking sunsets of the year in New York City.
The name is a New Yorker-style nod to Stonehenge, the ancient rock structure in the English countryside that corresponds to the sunsets and sunrises during the summer and winter solstices. That pre-modern monument was purposely built for religious and spiritual reasons. The New York City grid, on the other hand, was not designed with sunsets in mind, but ultimately functioned in a similar way. For four days, in May and July, it can bring people together to admire our particular geographic location in the cosmos as the sun sinks on the horizon, disappearing perfectly along the broad west-east corridors of the city.
An event like Manhattanhenge can shut down the entire borough and invite people to celebrate an otherwise normal daily sunset.
As if New York couldn’t get more magical, Manhattanhenge’s sunsets illuminate the streets with a glow of deep tangerine and bubble gum pink, transforming the bustling streets into a place to pause 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 largest cities, if not the largest city in the world, hitting the entire corridor of the concrete jungle with these amazing golden hues. It’s a beautiful thing.”
When is Manhattanhenge?
You’ll get four chances to see it – twice in the spring and twice in the summer, at either end of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, on June 21.
This Memorial Day long weekend, Manhattanhenge will take place twice:
Sunday, May 29, a half sun at 8:13 pm Eastern time.
Monday May 30, full sun at 8:12 PM
Then in July you get two more chances to see a perfect sunset:
Monday 11 July, full sun at 20:20
Tuesday 12 July a half sun at 20:21 pm
Why does Manhattanhenge happen?
We are witnessing this celestial event thanks to a combination of the approaching summer solstice, the grid design of the city and the natural shape that Manhattan Island took during the last ice age.
About 18,000 years ago, the massive ice sheet atop North America began to melt, carving out the island of Manhattan and the modern landscape on which the city was built.
“We think Manhattan Island runs from north to south. But it doesn’t actually run from north to south; it runs from northeast to southwest,” said Carol Krinksy, an American architectural historian at New York University.
This orientation combined with the street design allows the western setting sun to put on this show, she said.
“The grid system was designed for Manhattan before there was even an official city in New York,” added Dr. Krinsky ready for it. The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 set 90-degree blocks in motion for the official design of the city. Unsurprisingly, this was primarily for the real estate market: Most homebuyers don’t want to buy lots cut at odd angles.
So above 14th Street and below 155th Street, the city is divided into a grid. When the Earth tilts toward and then away from the sun during the summer solstice, our beloved Manhattanhenge is the result. It also shows how the structures built by humans interact with the natural world.
“Things like this are closely tied not only to the actual architecture of the universe around us, but also 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 and understand patterns in our environment.
“At some point someone will be asking, ‘Why is that happening?'” he said. “Wait a minute, oh, the sun doesn’t always stay in the same spot on the horizon. Why is that?’ This can so often lead to that ‘Aha!’ moments when we suddenly feel the urge to really explain what we’re seeing, instead of just saying, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’
Where are the best places to watch?
Luckily, anywhere within the grid system above 14th Street, you can give some sort of view.
You also need to have a clear view of New Jersey, and Dr. Faherty adds, “You really have to be in the middle of the street for the full effect, which is a bit dangerous.”
Preferably choose a street with wide avenues and a median strip where you can safely stand and watch. If there is a big hill, your view will be blocked.
Although almost everyone goes to 42nd Street, Dr. Faherty on 72nd Street instead. But if you want to join the hustle and bustle further downtown, Pershing Square is excellent to view, as is the area above Grand Central Station in the taxi line. As the New York Police Department tries to stop watching every year, photographers crowd the location and it can be quite chaotic.
Manhattanhenge is also visible outside of Manhattan. In Brooklyn or Queens, Dr. Faherty, there are several locations where you can look across town to New Jersey. For the best off-island experience, she recommends Gantry State Park in Queens.