Jason Kendall
William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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Inwood Star Fest: Review and Call to Action!
April 9, 2009

April 3rd. What a night. What an amazing night. The clouds looked foreboding, but we perserved. I made the call to go forward at about 10:00 AM. The Clear Sky Clock looked fine, and in fact improving. The night before, the Park Rangers and I had a chat about what we were going to do in case of clouds, which was basically me standing under an umbrella saying I am sorry.

Well, it was nearly that bad. The clock said it would clear up, and Mr. Demko is usually never wrong about these things. In fact, at 7PM, while I was at the gate, it did completely clear off. And a friend driving through New Jersey at the time said they saw clear skies coming East. We had high hopes. Onward! Parks were informed! Emails were sent! Calls were made!

Even at 7:15, there was an unmarked news truck, much like an unmarked police car, getting ready for the Big News. But someone's assessment was that it was Going To Rain, so the truck drove away at about 7:30. We never knew which TV station it was.

I was at the entrance after a rush over in a black limo at 6:30. There I stood, at the entrance, with papers and bags and a GalileoScope, but no one else. It was just me and the clouds, lowering ominously over my head. However, hope sprung eternal. I was confident that the clouds would clear. I was confident that amateur astronomers would appear out of thin air. Very soon, they did. For about 20 minutes, clear sky popped out to show us the Moon overhead in the blue sky. Feeling a bit cocky about the exiting clouds, I tried to hand-hold the Galileoscope up to the Moon. It was tricky, but I was able to see it nicely through the finder. I tripod really helps with that.

Then the telescopes arrived! Howard, Alice, The Javier and the Jersey Boys, Tony, Tom, and others. They walked into the park, or drove in to drop off their wares. They were glad the event was going forward, even though the clouds and once or twice the lightning to the north gave warning. But here we were, and the Rangers showed up. We set up a table. Stragglers walked by. I started cutting up sherds of red cellophane for flashlights.

Then it began. People, unexpectedly started arriving. The singers were warming up, getting ready for their debut. Jennifer showed up with the electricians (glad to have a night job for a bit of extra pay.) The crowd was only a bit put off by the drizzle of rain at 7:50PM, which finally put the TV truck back on the road.

8PM arrived. I introduced the Big Bangers, and they sang their song to a boom box in a bag. They were lively and animated, but their faces all wished it were a lazy summer night with stars above rather than a slightly rainy night with iffy possibilities at best. The applause welcomed them, and Donna passed out CDs. It was nearly time.

Jennifer gave her welcome, and I thanked her and the crowd. Now we had about 50 people waiting to go in. At 8:30, Jennifer and the Electricians drove into the parks. The crowd then walked north into the park to the awaiting astronomers. David Teich and I stood at the entrance in a slight drizzle, feeling forlorn and looking at the clouds. After a moment of quietly watching a drizzle, we saw the lights go out. There we were, David and I, standing in front of a darkened park's entrance under an umbrella in a slight drizzle. The dream seemed a near pyrrhic victory. Working so hard and pushing so hard, only to see it totally cloudy. They say that some love is bittersweet.

At this point, just at the nadir of my feelings, the Parks Commissioner and Nancy Bruning walked up. We had a brief chat, and David graciously stood at the entrance while I walked into the park with them. En route, we chatted about the event. The Commissioner was quite pleased with it, and wanted to do it again. I was also able to tell him about how the Parks could save money with downward-directed lighting fixtures. It was a pleasant walk.

At the location, my spirits rose. Here were all these people, and the telescopes all set up, hoping beyond hope that these clouds would clear. I hopped up onto a table and started talking to the crowd. Showing them the effects of light pollution. Times Square looked like a patch of bright light in the clouds. Everyone also noticed that they could see better in the dark than they had thouught they could. We had a good time there. All of the astronomers were introduced, as well as the Commisioner, and I turned it over to nature and the various people there.

It stayed cloudy until about 10 PM. Then the clouds started to break. The Moon shone fiercely through. Then Saturn over in the high East. All of a sudden the clouds parted to show the entire Big Dipper. Castor and Pollux leaped out. Now it finally began. The evening came alive. All of the stars were bright against the high darkness. It is always very clear after a storm, because of the cooler upper atmosphere. And without the park lights, people could make out many many stars. Everyone there got to see Saturn. There were a lot of "first-timers", people who had never looked through a telescope before. That was the point. We had a good half-hour. The park's money had not been wasted.

The evening was nicely sumarized by the lone reporter who stuck it out: Corinne Ramey from the Manhattan Times. She got the scoop on this historic New York City event.

http://www.manhattantimesnews.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=135:04-09-09-without-the-lights-remembering-that-there-are-stars-up-there&catid=59:april-9-2009&Itemid=91

Everyone said that they knew a few people who would have come if it were cloudy. By counting their estimates, we think that if it were clear we would have had 2000 people show up. What a night THAT would have been.

My deepest thanks go out to all of you for supporting the effort and helping make it all possible.

During the event, the Parks Commissioner told me we need to do it again! And do it we shall. Here is what you need to do. Please write a letter to Commissioner Castro thanking him for putting on the event, even if you did not go. A written letter of support for this momentous and historic first lights-out of a New York City Park needs a good thank you.

His address is here:

Borough Commissioner William T. Castro
Arsenal West
24 West 61st Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10023

Just a thank you note is what we need. If we get a hundred of these, then the fire keeps burning.

I am shooting for three nights in October. It will be an amazing coordination of efforts, but we need to help raise money. With a thousand people potentially showing up, the security needs will be greater, which costs more money. That was the Park's only expense. Advertising for this really takes care of itself. Up until 7:15, there was a television truck parked at the gate, but since it was raining at that time, they drove off. FOX 5 and the NY Times are still interested in the story, and when we do it on a clear night, it will be amazing.

I need leads on corporate sponsorship opportunities to pass to Parks because they won't be able to pick up the tab completely again. Any contacts people can send my way, I will research and get them to the Parks people for advanced prep work. So, visibility for telescope makers is good, as are outdoor-related businesses, tour guides, travel agents (I am sure there are some unsold seats to good locations in China) and anything else we can come up with. Let's get Astro Celebrities to show up. It's a good place to sell a book, or pitch a movie or show. Send me those leads!

It is still the IYA, and we can make a HUGE difference by helping the brightest city take in our favorite night lights.

Clear Skies to You All!

Jason



About Jason Kendall

I am currently adjunct faculty at William Paterson University teaching astronomy. I hold a Master of Science in Astronomy from New Mexico State University. I am also a board member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. Since 2008, I have led the Inwood Astronomy Project which brought over 200 events of stargazing and public astronomy outreach to upper Manhattan, including the historic Inwood Star Fest, where Inwood Hill Park lights were turned off as part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy event in IYA2009. This was the first time in New York City history when park lights were turned off for an astronomy event. I've also focused on park safety due to an uptick in sexual assaults in Washington Heights and Inwood during 2011. I've worked to make our parks safer by encouraging public use of parks at night through night-time events with Park Rangers. I have led numerous "starwatching parties" and astronomy events in New York City, New Mexico, Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut and Texas. I am also proud to have been part of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador Program from 2009 to 2012. It all started way back in the fourth grade by the encouragement of two noted astronomers, Charles Schweighauser and Bart Bok. I saw Saturn through Charlie's telescope at then Sangamon State University on a clear Illinois night, and Bart encouraged me under those stars to study hard to come visit him at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I finally did make it down there about a decade after Bart passed away, and I found the favorite spots in Tucson, Arizona, where Bart and his wife Priscilla would spend when they were not gazing at the stars. Bart and his wife were pioneers in the study of the Milky Way, and their studies of the starforming regions called Bok Globules. It's even in my family. My great-grandfather was a Midwestern minister who used to preach his sermons out under the dark, cloudless nights. He always believed that getting out and experiencing the wonders of the natural world was a central part of being human. My family has always been inspired by his words: "We look up to look within." I hope that you'll join me under the stars or at one of my talks.

Come see what's up in the sky!

Jason Kendall

We look up to look within

William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Astronomical Society of the Pacific Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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