Sylvia Plath’s only novel The Bell Jar opens with lines that are essentially what takes over the city in summer and I have read and re-read many times: “New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail of a sweet dream. Mirage-grey at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.”
Don’t get me wrong. There are great moments, too. But in New York, everything is delivered in extremes. That’s just the city’s way.
Between late June and early July the evening sun hits the grid of Manhattan and allows for an incredible light miracle to happen.
It’s the time when you want to stroll down any avenue with your favourite music playing in your headphones. You pass crowds of people and occasionally some fools talking to the Sun, trajectory of which is now perfectly aligned with the grid of the city. If you look west, you see its burning disc at the very end of each street, emanating deep orange light being reflected on the dark and glossy facades of buildings, in their bricks and concrete.
Somehow, the light feels more intense as it makes its way through the tunnels of the city grid. By the time it reaches 2nd Avenue, it is almost physical. Palpable. As if charged with the chaos collected on its way. During those few precious minutes before the sun sets into the Hudson River, the city is on fire.
Nobody ever stops in NYC, but now they do, dazzled.
Humans possess a great talent to spoil any special moment by giving it a name.
And New Yorkers call this twice-a-year occurrence Manhattanhenge or Manhattan Solstice, referring to the prehistoric site of Stonehenge and its light phenomenon. Manhattanhenge is “an event during which the setting sun is aligned with the east–west streets of the main street grid of Manhattan, New York City.”
Of course, there is the inevitable NYC craziness around this “urban phenomenon”. When the miracle is supposed to be at its best, people form crowds at the best watching spots, equipped with Go-pro and selfie sticks. I remember getting out of the subway at Union Square with my friend on the 12th of July, at around 8pm. Without knowing anything about Manhattanhenge or being aware that this happened to be the BEST time and BEST spot to watch it, we were right there. In the midst of this weird moment, stuck among strangers. It is exactly that slight confusion when you find yourself completely unprepared for something like this and which I love about the city.
Is this staged? Or being filmed? Or just a coincidence? And why is everybody doing the same thing? With the sun?
And then I heard a guy yelling repeatedly “AYYYY-COOOOOO-WAAAAA-TAH-WO-DOLLA”. It stands for “iced cold water for one dollar”, but fuck it. The light and heat allows for a high level of abstraction. It distorts sounds, shapes and meanings. Ignoring the language, it can turn into a NYC mantra in Unami, the language spoken by Lenape people, when they called the island Manna-hata and there was no grid to imprison the light. Before the ancient stones were replaced by steel and glass canyons.