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Portlandhenge returns

By CHRISTIAN MCNEIL  |  September 25, 2008

STRAIGHT SHOT: Right down West Street.

Remember the halcyon days of July, when we watched fireworks explode over the East End? Sorry to be a drag, but summer is officially over: at 11:44 am on Monday, September 22, the sun passed directly over the Earth’s equator to mark the autumnal equinox. But as a parting gift, summer is leaving us with another, quieter spectacle in the sky — this time over the streets of the West End.

Besides marking the beginning of fall and roughly equal time between day and night, there’s another quirk about this time of year: on the equinox, no matter where you are on the globe, the sun rises due east, and sets due west. Here in Portland, there are four streets in the West End — Bowdoin, Carroll, Pine, and West — which happen to follow a precise east-to-west course to the Western Prom.

For a few days on either side of the equinoxes, the setting sun shines directly down the middle of those streets, and nearly every house along these streets — even if it’s blocks away from the Prom — has a view of the sunset. One of the best vantage points, in fact, is in front of the Soap Bubble Laundromat at the end of West Street, nearly 600 yards from the park.

This is happening all over the country, wherever there’s a city with a street grid oriented to the cardinal directions and open views to the horizon. On the National Mall, the Washington Monument casts its first shadow of the day over Lincoln’s statue, and then, 12 hours later, over the peak of the Capitol dome. In Houston, the setting sun is blinding commuters on the Katy Freeway. Throughout most of Chicago, people can watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan and set over the prairie.

Over the next few days, though, the sunsets will move rapidly to the southwest as the days get shorter. Still, if you miss it this week, the show repeats itself in the West End on the first day of spring — and also on different streets, at different times of the year. Portland’s skewed, inconsistent street grid can function as a sort of Stonehenge, marking the passage of the seasons by the march of sunrises and sunsets across the horizon.

On the winter solstice, the rising sun’s rays line up roughly with the course of Winter Street. On the summer solstice, daybreak lights up Pleasant Street. Are these just coincidences, or were the seafaring founders who surveyed and named these streets employing their knowledge of celestial navigation?

There will be plenty of time to puzzle out the cosmic mysteries of Portland’s streets in the long, dark winter ahead of us. Right now, it’s time to enjoy the last sunsets of the summer from the bench outside the Soap Bubble. If you can squint away the Italianate houses and convince yourself that the dryers’ noise is actually crashing surf, it’s almost like being in Malibu.

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