Around 300 people are crowded at the edge of 42nd street and 2nd avenue in Manhattan with cameras, selfie sticks, smartphones, tripods, and GoPros in hand. As soon as the green light for pedestrians flicker on, they run to the middle of street, engulfing cars, yellow cabs, and buses. Car passengers lower down their windows and ask what’s going on. We’re all here for the sunset.
As the traffic is brought to a halt and drivers honk like there’s no tomorrow, the Sun is slowly descending toward the horizon. The sky turns a bright, intense yellow that’s hard to stare at for more than a couple of seconds. Police officers arrive and try to clear off the street. “Can’t stay in the way of traffic,” they shout. “Guys, get off the street! You’re gonna get killed.”
Some have brought pretzels to eat as they wait patiently
But there’s no way to stop the New Yorkers — or the tourists. Some have brought pretzels to eat as they wait patiently. A little after 8 o’clock, all arms and hands go up. The Sun is ready to set, perfectly aligned with the grid of Manhattan’s streets. Some people ooooh, others clap. One shouts: "Welcome to Manhattanhenge."
The phenomenon happens only twice a year, in May and July. And it’s become one of the most photographed and popular attractions in New York City. The nickname, coined by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and head of the Hayden Planetarium, is a reference to England’s Stonehenge. At Stonehenge, once a year during the summer solstice, the rising Sun perfectly aligns with the 5,000-year-old stones, signaling the beginning of the season. In New York City, where the setting Sun simultaneously shines on both the north and south sides of each cross street in the grid, the phenomenon doesn’t fall on any special date.
And that’s because of the way the city’s streets are actually laid out. Manhattan’s grid doesn’t exactly point to the north, but it’s rotated 30 degrees. If the grid were perfectly aligned north and south, then Manhattanhenge would occur on the equinoxes — the first day of spring and fall — the only time of the year when the Sun actually sets in the west and rises in the east. (Every other day of the year, the Sun sets and rises elsewhere on the horizon.) Instead, it took place on May 29th and 30th this year, and then again on July 11th. Today is the last day of this year’s Manhattanhenge.
"Manhattanhenge may just be a unique urban phenomenon in the world."
Other cities like Chicago, Boston, and Montreal, which are laid out on east–west grids, also get similar phenomena — but they’re not as spectacular, according to DeGrasse Tyson. That’s because beyond the grid, a perfect cityhenge needs a flat, clear horizon. Manhattan has the Hudson River to the west, and then New Jersey. "So Manhattanhenge may just be a unique urban phenomenon in the world, if not the universe," DeGrasse Tyson writes in a blog post on the Hayden Planetarium’s website.
Even with some haze and clouds, the sunset was incredible. The golden light glowed over the skyscrapers, illuminating cars and people, bringing the city to a still — if only for just a few seconds. "This is fucking insane," a passerby said. "I thought LeBron James was outside."
Nope, just a bunch of people staring out west with a smile on their face. Nature is the celebrity tonight. And, as is so often the case in the movies, so is New York City.
Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales