Park Avenue and 34th Street

Text and Photographs by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Natural History special issue

Part of City of Stars photo essay.

Looking down 34th Street, surrounded by skyscrapers on both sides, the sunset is visible down the street on the horizon.

What will future civilizations think of Manhattan Island when they dig it up and find its carefully laid out network of streets and avenues? Surely they will presume the grid had astronomical significance, just as we have done in the case of that prehistoric circle of large vertical rocks known as Stonehenge, in England’s Salisbury Plain. For Stonehenge, the special day is the summer solstice, the first day of summer, when the Sun rises in perfect alignment with several of the stones.

Manhattan has two such special days: May 28 and July 12. On these days the Sun fully illuminates every single cross street during the last fifteen minutes of daylight and sets exactly on the street’s centerline. Upon studying American culture and what is important to it, future anthropologists might take the Manhattan alignments to be cosmic signs of Memorial Day and, of course, the baseball’s All-Star break.

If the Manhattan grid matched the geographic north-south line, then our special days would be the equinoxes, the two days on the calendar when the Sun rises due east and sets due west. But Manhattan is rotated 30° east from the geographic north, shifting the special days elsewhere in the calendar.

The silhouetted Manhattan skyline looking down 42nd Street, with the sun on the horizon exactly aligned with the street. The East River is in the foreground.
The view of Manhattanhenge from Queens, looking down 42nd Street.