Party Like It's 1999... B.C.?

Written by Craig Outhier Category: Valley News Issue: September 2012
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Of course, we Phoenicians have no particular shortage of sunsets. We also don’t have many skyscrapers. Or druids. But we do, theoretically, have a Phoenixhenge – a day when the sun sets perfectly along our east-west roadways. Conveniently enough, Phoenixhenge coincides with a familiar, universally-recognized astronomical event: the autumnal equinox, which this year falls on September 22.

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Solstices, equinoxes, the English – this all might be striking you as a bit, you know, tedious. But just think: You can party like a  druid on September 22, and you have our  founding Phoenician fathers to thank for it.

It all boils down to the Valley’s remarkably orderly street system – a near-perfect rectangular grid. According to Arizona historian Marshall Trimble, it was 19th century surveyor William Hancock who originally plotted our streets. Using the Thomas Jefferson-invented Public Land Survey System, Hancock measured out the Valley from its main survey line, the “Salt River and Gila Baseline and Meridian,” later shortened to “Baseline Road.” He then designated a north-south “Center Avenue,” but not without resistance. In 1870, two other survey groups presented their own plans: One placed the city’s backbone at what is now 40th Street; the other drew the line at present-day 16th Street.

“It was a real contentious vote,” Trimble says. “There was a lot riding on it. You can imagine the advantages if your property was in the middle of town.”

Hancock’s group won, and the rest is history. Washington Street became the designated Downtown meridian, with presidentially-named streets extending north and south. “Center Avenue” became Central Avenue, and Phoenix, which had a scant population of 240 people in 1870, grew exponentially within a gridded, master-planned framework – the rare American metropolis that anticipated its own sprawl.

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As a result, you can observe Phoenixhenge virtually anywhere in the Valley – which is to say, anywhere there’s a west-facing street with a view of the horizon. Due to our gorgeous grid, Phoenixhenge falls on the two days of the year when the sun is on the same plane as the equator – i.e. the vernal equinox (June 20) and the autumnal equinox (September 22).

So now that you’re armed with all this Phoenixhenge knowledge, what should you do with it? Maybe, put on a robe and party like it’s 1999 B.C.? “I dunno,” the cowboy-hatted Trimble says. “I don’t look too good in robes.”