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Manhattanhenge, May 2011 - 07 | by Ed Yourdon
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Manhattanhenge, May 2011 - 07

... and this is what it's all about. As you can imagine, this is a tightly cropped image, but it was taken with a fairly modest-size telephoto -- only 120mm on a full-frame FX camera.


The trees and building in the background are in New Jersey, on the other side of the Hudson River.


Note the people standing in the middle of the crosswalk a couple blocks away., Photographing the sunset? No, they were photographing Sarah Palin meeting Donald Trump in Times Square, where they had pizza for dinner. Seriously.


(Rumor has it that Trump spends the night in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, seen on the left side of the picture.)


Note: Note: this photo was published in an June 1, 2011 Everyblock NYC zipcodes blog titled "10017."


Note: I chose this photo, among the 20 that I uploaded to Flickr on June 1, 2011, as my "photo of the day." I'm sure it's not the very best of the Manhattanhenge photos of this event, but it's definitely the best one that I've taken -- and it will always remind me of the awesome experience...




Thousands of years from now, when aliens descend upon the Earth, looking for signs of intelligent life amongst the debris of beer cans and Starbucks coffee cups, what will they find? If they happen to land first at Stonehenge, by some curious coincidence, they might well get the impression that we humans like to line up big stones and tall buildings in such a way that they align with the sun during the summer and winter solstice.


Then the aliens would come to New York City. Of course they would: it's the Center of the Universe, right? And, lo and behold: once again they would find a curious alignment of buildings, in which the setting sun aligns with the east-west streets in the borough of Manhattan -- and which can be seen in late May and mid-July. In the spirit of henge-y things, they would adopt the name first proposed by Neil deGrasse Tyson in 2002 (who, as everyone now realizes, is actually an alien who was sent to Earth back to scout things out before the rest of his tribe made the journey, notwithstanding his day job as an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History): they would call it Manhattanhenge.


And the aliens would wonder if New Yorkers really comprehended what they were building when they began following the Commissioner's Plan of 1811 in March of that year, which laid out a grid that was offset by 29.0 degrees from true east-west (if it had been aligned with true north, then the henge event would take place exactly on the spring and fall equinox). Indeed, the whole thing was largely ignored until Mr. Tyson called attention to it in 2002; after that, it was the focus of an episode of CSI:NY that aired on November 25, 2009, and it was part of the closing scene in a forgettable 2010 film called Morning Glory.


With their curiosity piqued, the aliens would venture further afield, and would discover that the "henge" phenomenon can be seen elsewhere, too. In Chicago, for example, where the setting sun lines up with the grid on September 25th. And in Toronto, where the setting sun lines up with east-west streets on October 25 and February 6th. And in Montreal, which experiences a similar event around July 12th. God only knows how many other cities have henges that they don't even know about - the mind boggles.


Indeed, there is even an MIThenge. Of course there is, and it takes place in mid-November and late January, when the sun shines all the way through 825 feet of MIT's Infinite Corridor, which runs from the main entrance on Massachusetts Avenue through Buildings 7, 3, 10, 4, and 8. Honesty compels me to admit that we didn't celebrate the event when I was a student there -- but after all, that was slightly before the invention of electricity, and we were all scared of the dark.


You can imagine that the aliens would look at all these henges, and then shake their heads in disbelief. If humans were smart enough to do all that, they would ask themselves, why weren't they smart enough to stop killing each other and destroying the planet? Why indeed? Maybe it's because all the good vibes caused by the sunset henge phenomena are offset by bad vibes associated with the corresponding mornings that cause the rays of sunrise to shine, east to west, along the same lines. In Manhattan, this occurs approximately December 5th and January 8th -- day whens crazed taxi drivers have been known to run down doddering old seniors as they wobble across the street, days when feral rats have been known to attack innocent tourists as they stand huddled in empty subway stations, days when savvy New Yorkers call in sick, stay home, and get roaring drunk. (For what it's worth, MIT has no winter henge event, because the eastern end of the Infinite Corridor is blocked by Building 18. But you probably knew that already.)


Sometimes I think that I must be one of those aliens, sent from my home planet to observe the behavior of these strange Earthlings on henge-day. For what it's worth, I can report that they behaved reasonably well during the late-May 2011 Manhattanhenge celebration. There was some advance notice in the local newspapers, so photographers and astronomy buffs were prepared; but for the most part, the rest of the city's population ignored it completely. When I arrived at the 42nd Street overpass right in front of Grand Central Station, not another soul was there ... of course, I did arrive an hour and a quarter before sunset, and most New Yorkers are far too busy to sit around and twiddle their thumbs for an hour.


I brought my iPad to keep myself occupied, and I was beginning to think I might be the only New Yorker paying attention to the phenomenon; but then a pleasant young woman, whom I later discovered to be a member of the New York City Sierra Club Photographic Committee, arrived with her camera. And then another, and another, and another. By the time the sun officially set at 8:17 PM, there must have been a hundred people, packed three deep, along the western side of the overpass -- and another 30 people across two lanes of traffic, on the east side of the overpass. Several of them mentioned that they had considered photographing the setting sun from a pedestrian bridge that crosses 42nd Street near Second Avenue; but it was apparently so heavily crowded with photographers and tourists that new arrivals could not even get onto the bridge.


The western sky was somewhat hazy, so the sunset itself was not all that spectacular. But it was still an awesome spectacle to behold, and I took my fair share of photos along with everyone else. I thought I might get somewhat more dramatic results by taking 5-image HDR shots, and that's mostly what you'll see in this set; I had also considered taking a few video shots, but there really wasn't much time ... and I don't think the results would have been all that interesting.


So that's it for now, at least until the next Manhattanhenge event in July. If you happen to be there, and if you see a friendly-looking alien with a camera, it will probably be me...

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Taken on May 31, 2011