Why Do People Love Manhattanhenge So Much?

Where nature meets the grid, we find an ancient way of connecting with the cosmos. 

People in Midtown take pictures of Manhattanhenge, May 29, 2013.  (Reuters)

There's something magical about Manhattanhenge, the twice-a-year phenomenon when the sun sets exactly along the cross streets of New York City's prodigious grid.

Manhattanhenge is happening tonight at 8:16 p.m., which means, if you're in the city, you should head outside a few minutes before then if you want to really relish it. And you should! People love Manhattanhenge the way we love the shared experiences of a fireworks display or a cracking-loud thunderstorm—the kinds of moments that can feel bigger than they actually are, and turn out to be just as fun to anticipate as they are to experience.

Naturally, lots of people celebrate Manhattanhenge the way we organize around just about any event these days: by publicly processing our shared experience as it's happening. Manhattanhenge is often called an urban photographer's dream, and a major part of the appeal is to capture the perfect shot of the city bathed in gold as the sun dips behind long stretches of pavement. And yet the reason we like it so much in the first place has its roots in something ancient. More on that in a minute. First, a little history.

Manhattanhenge has really only been part of our culture for about a decade. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson coined the term in 2002 as a portmanteau meant to evoke Stonehenge, where the sun aligns on the solstice. (Manhattanhenge doesn't coincide with the solstice because the city's grid alignment is not exactly north-south, but instead skews about 30 degrees off to the side.) Here's how deGrasse Tyson explained it last year:

You read anthropological books where they're always looking at some ancient culture. If they didn't have writing, you have to infer what they valued. So I thought: An apocalyptic Earth, if there's nothing that survives but our street grid, what would they say of us? Surely, future anthropologists would argue that we arranged our grid to align with the sun on purpose on those days, and what could they learn about our culture?

What they'd learn, perhaps, is something of the inherent tension between human construction and the natural environment. We have a tendency to think of cities as entirely built—concrete jungles, islands of pavement and glass—when really they are complex integrations with the natural world and the larger universe. Elements of nature—sunlight, trees, air, grass—are inextricable from how we think about city space and design. (At least, they are now. Urban planning has come a long way since the days of Robert Moses, the notorious Manhattan planner who cut off the city from the water that surrounds it.)

Most days, New York City's grid is appreciated on a purely functional level. It is, after all, a triumph of city design. The grid is why New Yorkers get so discombobulated trying to navigate the spaghetti-like disorder of the streetscape in a place like Boston. It's why native New Yorkers still get lost in the areas of the West Village where the grid dissolves. Humans have relied on grids to organize their cities for as long as cities have existed; grids date back thousands of years to the earliest human civilizations. Manhattan's has only been around for about 200 years. Here's a map of the city's grid as it was planned in 1811:

New York Public Library

The goal was "to unite regularity and order with the public convenience and benefit and in particular to promote the health of the City," according to a New York Public Library blog post about the design. And it worked! New York's grid—coupled with its numbered streets—makes it a cinch for newcomers to learn their way around. That sense of order is a fundamental part of the way people live in Manhattan, which means it's baked into the city's identity. The grid orients us. It gives us a sense of distance and scale. It informs how we give directions: You'd never tell someone to meet you at "117 MacDougal Street" but "on MacDougal between Bleecker and West Third."

So there's something about Manhattanhenge that simultaneously reinforces and disrupts our sense of the grid's importance. For a brief moment, as the sun kisses the streets of Manhattan, nature appears to fall into the order of the manmade world. The sun comes to us. And in a city like New York, which already feels like the center of the universe, it seems like it ought to. It's this "concept of stones aligning with the cosmos" that deGrasse Tyson said lingered in his mind for years before he came up with the name "Manhattanhenge."

But the phenomenon also feels like a happy accident, just fleeting enough to remind us that the alignments between man and nature can be meaningful simply because they feel that way, and that mankind is not so significant after all, not in New York City or anywhere else. Just the name Manhattanhenge—our own little Stonehenge—evokes this mesh of mystery and the manmade, something indisputably human but impossible to articulate. And, besides, gazing out across a gorgeous city bathed in the last sunlight of a warm evening can make everything else fall away.

It's hard not to delight in a phenomenon that feels at once perfectly planned and wholly accidental, simultaneously monumental and ephemeral. And so we love Manhattanhenge for being a celebration of the grid that tethers us to the structural values of the past. We love it for illuminating the beauty of the present. And we love it for alerting us to the enduring clockwork of the much larger world, the one we don't always take time to notice.