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An Urban Stonehenge For The New World


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Today's the start of a new series on WEEKEND EDITION - Summer Stargazing. What better way to begin than with the summer solstice? Early this morning in England, pagans and non-pagans rose to watch the sunrise in perfect alignment with the ancient pillars of Stonehenge.

But what if you don't happen to be in Britain? What if your Druid costume is at the dry cleaners? Then, welcome to Manhattanhenge. Mystically, twice a year, the sun aligns with the skyscrapers of Manhattan. But let's let an expert explain. Jackie Faherty, an astronomer with the Carnegie Institute, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JACKIE FAHERTY: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: What is Manhattanhenge?

FAHERTY: Manhattanhenge is a term that we've coined, in tribute to Stonehenge, to describe the days of the year where the sun lines up perfectly with the grid of Manhattan. So if you're standing outside, looking west, on any of the cross streets, you would see the sun kiss the grid just as it goes below the horizon.

SIMON: Now is this an accident, or did somebody plan it that way?

FAHERTY: It's sheerly an accident. The shape of Manhattan, which was formed by various geologic processes and various other things - that erosion that has happened in the city made this shape, so that the long part of the island is roughly north. So it's not exactly north. And we've got 90-degree angles to the cross streets. And that was all set in place in 1811 when the Commissioners Plan decided this was the best way to structure the city.

SIMON: That's amazing. (Laughing).

FAHERTY: Yeah. Pretty awesome.

SIMON: I mean, I'm trying to figure the odds of a coincidence like that. 'Cause if you set out to do that nowadays, it would take a lot of work.

FAHERTY: The other special thing about Manhattan is that it is an island city. It's a gridded city that's also an island. So it is flanked on the eastern and western sides by the river. On the western side, it's flanked by the Hudson River, and you've got a long view to sunset. And you've got New Jersey. I'm from New Jersey, so I can say, as a complement, it's really nice that New Jersey does not have a large skyline. So it's a pretty flat skyline. So because of that, you get a really beautiful view - a long view towards sunset. So you can actually see the sun when it's setting.

SIMON: Now I've been told that Manhattanhenge - because the island's 28.9 degrees east of true north, this event does not take place on the solstice, right?

FAHERTY: That's right. So it happens roughly twice. May 28 is the first date of this year. It's already past. And July 11, which is upcoming, is the second occasion for it.

SIMON: Where should you stand if you want to get the best view?

FAHERTY: So the little trick here is that you have to be in the middle of the street in order to see.


FAHERTY: And you can imagine - in New York City, the last place you want to be is in the middle of the street. But there are a few places - little hidden gems - that are the best spots to see it. You want to have nice skyscrapers in your view because the giant skyscrapers become your picture frame. So 42nd Street and 34th Street are two of the favorites because you've got, on 34th Street, the Empire State building, and 42nd Street - you've got Grand Central, Chrysler Building, Times Square. So that's a fantastic shot.

SIMON: How widely known is this? I mean, are tourists showing up?

FAHERTY: It's becoming more and more popular every single year. And the best part of Manhattanhenge is watching the people that don't know what's going on realize that something exciting is happening. So the people in the know are usually photographers that want to get the shot. The people that are not in the know are just walking around and don't understand why, all of a sudden, every time the light goes red, people are jumping into the middle of the street. And it causes cars to stop, drivers to stop. Everybody wants to understand what exactly is going on.

SIMON: Does this confirm the idea that Manhattan's at the center of the world?

FAHERTY: I like to think that. I like to think, actually, that on the dates of Manhattanhenge, Brad Pitt could be standing naked in the middle of 42nd Street. But if he were facing east, all of the cameras would be facing west, because the star of the day is the city with the sun there. And the pun is intended for why the sun is the star of the day.

SIMON: It sounds like you've given this a lot of thought.


FAHERTY: I love Brad Pitt. (Laughing).

SIMON: Well, we'll be on the lookout. Maybe he'll just surprise people and try it this year. Jackie Faherty, giving a lecture on Manhattanhenge at the American Museum of Natural History on July 11. That's the next time the sun will be perfectly aligned with Manhattan. Thanks so much for being with us.

FAHERTY: No problem.

SIMON: In the weeks to come, you can hear more stories about navigating the night sky during our Summer Stargazing series. We will meet time keepers and asteroid hunters and even building a Newtonian poor man's telescope that can peer into other galaxies. That's all summer long, here on WEEKEND EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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