By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
In Manhattan we get our share of celebrities. Some live here year-round. Many zoom by in a blaze of flashbulbs and applause.
And some show up reliably every day, unapplauded, but make a celebrity entrance a few minutes out of the year. That’s what happens at Manhattanhenge. Twice a year, roughly three weeks before and after the summer solstice, the setting sun lines up precisely with the east-west streets of Manhattan’s street grid.
It’s a well-known phenomenon, and has become more so with each passing year. Photographers gather at major intersections, awaiting that perfect moment when the sun touches the horizon, framed precisely between buildings on either side. For a moment or two, the sun is a celebrity.
I’ve heard about it, and Vlad has taken pictures of it many times. But this year was the first time I’d actually experienced it.
We decided to view Manhattanhenge from one of the more common locations: 34th Street and Park Avenue. That intersection is slightly elevated, so the view West to the Hudson River is nearly unimpeded.
We arrived about an hour early, but the crowds were already beginning to gather on both sides of the median. Nearly everyone (except me) had a camera. Most were point-and-shoots or phones, but many had serious cameras with long lenses. Quite a few intrepid folks carried tripods.
I quickly learned the rhythm of us paparazzi. When traffic flowed east-west, we stayed quietly on our patches of sidewalk, watching the cars zoom by.
But when the light changed, and traffic flowed north-south, we’d run out into the middle of 34th Street and take a few quick shots. Then the traffic light would change again, and we’d scamper back to the sidewalk ahead of the blaring horns.
The only problem: It looked like the sun might be obscured by a low-lying cloud bank. We couldn’t be sure we would see it when it was time for sunset.
Sunset was about 8:25 PM. By 8:00 the cloud was still there. Tension grew. Would the sun come out from behind the clouds this year? Vlad had been doubtful all afternoon; we’d made tentative plans to try to see Manhattanhenge tomorrow, if the sun failed to make the scheduled experience today.
The crowds grew bigger, large enough to begin to partially block the street, even when the light was against us. Traffic began to build up, and horns blared nearly nonstop. At one point, a police van drew up, lights flashing, and we thought we might be about to be ordered to clear the street. But, perhaps recognizing that it would be a hopeless task, the officers merely chatted with some of the crowd, and drove on.
Then a promising reflection began to glow off the high windows at the end of 34th Street. “It’s here.. it’s coming…” we said excitedly to each other.
This time, when the light changed, we didn’t surge back to our places. We blocked traffic. A few cars were caught in the intersection, the drivers glaring at us in puzzlement.
More light. A brighter glow. The lights changed again, the crowds surged once more… and suddenly… “Here it is! The sun has arrived!!!”
The sun broke out, caught delicately between the buildings on either side. We applauded, whistled, and cheered.
And we all ran once more into the intersection, flowing around the stopped traffic. This time, a bus was trapped among the cars. The driver shook his head wearily, but passengers eagerly crowded to the front, snapping photos with their cell phones. The rest of us crouched, ran, stretched to take the best shots of the perfectly orange sun, perfectly framed between gray buildings. And we cheered and cheered; I was so excited I was jumping up and down.
Celebrity sun had arrived!
(Click on any photo to start slideshow)