Called the “summer solstice of Manhattan” by the New York Times, “Manhattanhenge” is the twice-a-year phenomenon when the setting sun lines up exactly with Manhattan’s precise street grid. This alignment illuminates the north and south sides of every cross street in the grid; every numbered street has a shaft of light running perfectly down its center, the fortuitous result of meticulous city planning. “Manhattanhenge” does not occur on the actual solstice because Manhattan’s streets aren’t perfectly oriented to cardinal directions; instead they are rotated about ninety-degrees clockwise, east to west. The term “Manhattanhenge” was coined in 2002 by astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson in reference to Stonehenge and has become enormously popular since, a biannual urban sun salutation. Although other grid-system cities do have their own respective “henges,” few cities are so uniquely positioned for this phenomenon: Manhattan’s flat streets are perfectly straight, and the Hudson River provides an unobstructed view to the horizon.
Manhattanhenge’s two occurrences are spaced evenly around the summer solstice, and I thought I’d go on an urban adventure to see it for the first time. On May 29, 2016, around 8:15 PM, I planned to stand in the middle of 23rd Street between Broadway and 5th to photograph Manhattanhenge. My parents and boyfriend were with me, and I hoped to capture the accidental-on-purpose moment where the urban world seems to coexist peacefully with the cosmos, the lucky coincidence of solar and synthetic.
I had written notes about how I would connect this wonder to my overall yearning for a deeper connection to nature. I live in Manhattan, and my morning commute does not expose me to any trees; indeed, if it weren’t for Bryant Park by my office, a cactus on my desk, and a small collection of succulents at home, I’d rarely encounter plant life. Light pollution prevents me from stargazing and watching many of the other astronomical phenomena I wanted to observe, like the Perseids Meteor Shower or Mars’ recent proximity and subsequent visibility to the naked eye. My view of the sky is often blocked by one tall building or another, so my visual window for lunar and solar eclipses is limited as well. Manhattanhenge was my chance to watch an “astronomical” phenomenon unobstructed, unhindered. Even if the phenomenon were only the unintended consequence of perpendicular streets, I’d take the best I could get.
I could use my urban landscape to my advantage, for once, and find some mystery in the world, rather than the plodding mundane steps of my NYC life. I thought that observing Manhattanhenge, planting my feet in the middle of the street, would help me explore these themes in my writing, push me beyond my lazy urbanite attempts at growing a succulent garden and hoping my work cactus, lovingly named Roberto, wouldn’t die because he doesn’t get any natural sunlight. (The view from my office window is a brick wall.)
Of course I would only stand in the crosswalk when I had the white walking stick figure, and of course I would watch for cars, but I would risk the busy streets of Manhattan to see the spectacle. Perhaps it wasn’t an “adventure” in the strictest sense, but I would make do in my dense urban jungle.
To my great regret, however, Tropical Depression Bonnie was rolling in right around 7:30 PM. Sitting with my parents, who were visiting from out of town, and my boyfriend, in Madison Square, I’d pop out of my seat every few minutes, run up to 23rd Street, peek west, and return glumly with a status update. “Still just clouds.” “I can’t see the sun at all.” Nature, it seemed, didn’t want to cooperate with my plans. As the clock ticked closer to 8:15, more and more people began to accumulate on either side of the street, craning their necks in anticipation, waiting for the sun to shine through and bathe the city in light. But the sky continued to turn a deeper smoky gray-blue. My parents and boyfriend tried to come up with titles for this assignment: “Hinging my Bets,” “Sunsetting our Expectations,” and “Cont-hengency Plan” stick out. As more and more people collected, passers-by would stop and ask, “What is everyone waiting for?” “Why are you all lined up?”
Every time the crosswalk figure lit up, I’d scurry to the middle of the street, halfheartedly snap a photo, and scuttle back when the flashing red hand began counting down. The sunset came and went, and my boyfriend said, “This is what we waited for, the cloudening.” With a deep sigh, I shelved my dreams of writing poetically about the interaction of the industrial and the cosmically divine. Here was where my two worlds were supposed to meet, the intersection of contradictions: the sky and skyscraper, the manmade and the natural—manufactured meets Mother Nature.
Instead, I came away with a much harsher but perhaps truer lesson, a reminder of sorts: nature cannot be tamed; the weather is not ours to control; the best laid plans of mice and men can go awry, thanks to low barometric pressure, ocean temperature, and air currents. I had a plan to see a glorious display of the sun reflecting off the windows, radiant light bouncing from every corner, every façade. But then I thought back to my oceanography course, the weather cycles of the New York Sound, how warm air rises and cooler, denser air sinks, how these patterns lead to storms like Tropical Depression Bonnie sweeping in to foil my plans. I was reminded of when my family went to the top of Mount Haleakala in Hawaii at 6 in the morning to watch the sun rise, only to be greeted by mist and fog. That is the true glory of nature and science: its unpredictability, its chaos and simplicity, its circumstantial contingencies.