NYC Urban Starfest – Background & History of the Event

by Keith Rowan – Article originally located at:

Background of the Event:

Keith Rowan is very pleased and honored to have personally conceived of and created the NYC Urban Starfest in 1995 while he was serving in a position as the Borough Supervisor of the NYC Urban Park Rangers (for Richmond County, NY) City of New York Department of Parks & Recreation (and at the time an active member of the Amateur Astronomer’s Association (AAA) of NYC).

Much due credit and many thanks for creating this event also goes to Michael O’Gara (of the AAA), for without his cooperation, coordination, and tireless efforts this event would of never got off the ground!

Since its launch on September 30th, 1995, the NYC Urban Starfest is the first and only official New York City large-scale astronomy festival (“star party”) to take place in world famous Central Park, Manhattan. This “Star Party” has continued on an ongoing annual basis since its inception and is currently in its 14th year as of this writing in 2009.

The NYC Urban Starfest was created by Keith to show all New Yorkers that yes, if you only look up, you can indeed see the stars from the heart of New York City! This FREE annual event, occurring each autumn, is a gathering of amateur & professional Astronomers who set up a “galaxy” of telescopes in the Sheep Meadow of Central Park for the public to view the wonders and majesty of the night sky above us– to in essence, “behold the heavens”!

History of the Event:

The event first took shape in 1994 while Keith was participating as a member in an Amateur Astronomer’s Association (AAA) sponsored Lunar Eclipse observing event on Staten Island, NY, and mentioned to another AAA member, Eileen Thomas, that he had the idea of creating a large-scale astronomy observing event for all New Yorkers to enjoy, and Eileen suggested that Keith discuss the concept with Mr. Michael O’Gara who was then the Vice President of the AAA.

Later in July of 1994, Keith participated as an Urban Park Ranger along with the NYC Amateur Astronomer’s Association (AAA), and Irv Robbins, in a huge public observing event (led by Mike O’Gara) in the Sheep Meadow of Central Park showcasing the incredible impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter. It was at this spectacular once-in-a-lifetime planetary collision event that Keith first met Mike O’Gara (then V.P. and later President) of the NYC Amateur Astronomer’s Association, brought up the concept of a dedicated large-scale public observing event, and we also discussed the idea of a an ongoing cooperative observing relationship between the AAA and the NYC Park Rangers (which continues to this day).

It is through this meeting and agreement of these two organizations to join forces, and the friendship that formed between Mike O’Gara and Keith Rowan, that the 1st annual NYC Urban Starfest was born!

Sometime later that year, and in early 1995, Keith also approached Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the American Museum Hayden Planetarium, and Professor Irving Robbins, Director of the CSI Astrophysical Observatory, and suggested that a cooperation of these four organizations (including the NYC Amateur Astronomer’s Association and the NYC Urban Park Rangers) join forces and offer this special astronomy event to the citizens of New York City.

During Starfest-I both Keith Rowan (AAA member/Park Ranger Supervisor) and Neil Tyson (Director, Hayden Planetarium) regaled the attending crowd in Central Park with an amplified tour of the night sky above that evening, including astronomical facts as well as lore, legend & ancient mythologies!

Michael O’Gara (V.P.) and Lynn Darsh (then president of AAA) led the Amateur Astronomer’s Association (AAA) observers in delivering stunning views of the stars, planets and nebulae to the attending crowds. A city-wide detail of the New York City Urban Park Rangers & Parks Enforcement Manhattan Unit (led by Keith Rowan, AUPR)manned an 8-inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope for public use, informational tables & exhibits, provided park patron service, as well as public safety & security for the event. Professor Irving Robbins (Director of the CSI Astrophysical Observatory) delivered a special talk and slide show entitled, “Death by Asteroids”. David Regan (of the International Dark Sky Association) delivered a slide show entitled, “Keep Our Skies Dark”. Mr. Peter Lipschutz (of Adorama Inc. & AAA member) delivered a talk and slide show on “Urban Astrophotography” and he had a special video set-up connected to a telescope to transmit onto a big screen the Moon and other celestial delights to the delight of the attendees!

Other AAA observers of special note that participated in Starfest-I that magical evening (but are not limited to) included: Eileen Thomas, Rick Davis, Bruce Kamiat and Art Kunhart among many others, who’s names presently escape me (sorry, it was 14 years ago!)… if you were directly involved in the NYC Urban Starfest-I event as an observer or presenter then please contact me at (not-active) to be included in this web listing.

In addition, we set up a large screen slide show of astronomy images in one part of the Sheep Meadow while a high fidelity sound system wafted newage space music (from the likes of David Arkenstone, Jonn Serrie, Kevin Braheny, Michael Stearns, Steve Roach, Enya, & others) over the attending crowds that evening.

We had a stage with a podium set up for welcoming comments from some of the sponsors of the event including Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Keith Rowan, Mike O’Gara, Lynn Darsh, and Henry J. Stern (then NYC Parks Commissioner). To create special ambience, Keith had set up a double arcing row of “luminarias” (white paper bags with candles in them) to line and subtly light the way for the public from the entrance of the Sheep Meadow to the stage area. At one point of the evening we had a “door prize” raffle (free) of donated astronomical equipment and objects which were distributed to the public attending the event.

The large crowd attending (which turned out to be in the many thousands) were jubilant and appeared to get into the whole “celestial ambiance” of that evening. There have been many Starfests since that September evening in 1995 but none, I believe, can duplicate the magic we all experienced on the 1st annual NYC Urban Starfest! I for one am so glad to have been a part of that very special evening and it will always hold a special place in the heart of this “watcher of the skies”!

All this in an astronomy event which was held about one mile from the heart of Times Square in NYC! Even with the unfortunate and appreciable light pollution we receive in Manhattan, this event, which is held in the Sheep Meadow of Central Park each year, is still able to showcase a multitude of heavenly wonders to the citizens of New York City… that is, if they are only willing to look up!

Keith is very humbled to have been awarded the Exceptional Duty and Honorable Service Medals from the City of New York (Urban Park Service Division) for his work in creating and delivering the NYC Urban Starfest and for his numerous public astronomy programs during his tenure (1987-1997) with the NYC Urban Park Rangers.

Currently Keith teaches astronomy as an Adjunct Faculty member and serves on the full-time instructional staff as the Astronomy Laboratory Supervisor (Senior Technician) with the Department of Engineering Science & Physics at the City University of New York: College of Staten Island. Keith had also served for about 10 years (thru 2005) as the original Staff Astronomer responsible for student & public observations while operating the 16-inch computerized Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope at the CSI Astrophysical Observatory.

The event today:

The first three years that Keith Rowan and Mike O’Gara coordinated and directed the Urban Starfest were large-scale multi-media special events which were highly attended and enjoyed by all the participants including the public at large (it is estimated that Starfest-I had well over 3000 participants!). A copy of the original program from the event (Starfest-I) in 1995 can be seen here. Again, my many heartfelt thanks to Mike (“Eagle Eye”) O’Gara for all the hard work you had done to make that special night possible!

Today the NYC Urban Starfest, while somewhat smaller in nature & scope, but still a most wonderful event, is solely coordinated and directed by the Amateur Astronomer’s Association and the NYC Urban Park Rangers.

While Keith himself is no longer directly involved in the event itself per se (other than occasionally stopping by to visit and do some observing), he is nonetheless very much pleased to see the event he created so many years ago extend into its 14th year (a/o 2009) and very much hopes that it may continue on indefinitely in the interest of the education and overall enjoyment of all New Yorkers to the science of astronomy, as well as, to increased awareness of the beauty of the night sky above us all! Clear & dark skies to you! -Keith

Footnotes & Addendums::
(1) This webpage was created for, and inspired by the 2009 International Year Of Astronomy!

“In the year 2009, the world will celebrate the International Year of Astronomy as it commemorates the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of a telescope to study the skies, and Kepler’s publication of Astronomia Nova. 2009 is also the anniversary of many other historic events in science, including Huygen’s 1659 publication of Systema Saturnium.This will be modern astronomy’s quadricentennial, and the 2009 Year of Astronomy will be an international celebration of numerous astronomical and scientific milestones” (excerpt from the US IYA webpage).

(2) Special Thanks for contributing to the 1st Annual NYC Urban Starfest go to:

Angela Gaudioso, Irv Robbins, Martin Tekusky, Porfirio Ramos, Monica Vecino, Nancy Barthold, Nelson Nicholas, Tom Kinney, Lynn Darsh, Mike O’Gara, Eileen Thomas, David Regan, Peter Lupchutz, Rick Davis, Bruce Kamiat, The Amateur Astronomer’s Association of NYC, The NYC Urban Park Rangers, The College of Staten Island’s Astrophysical Observatory, Adorama Inc., The Hayden Planetarium, The International Dark-Sky Association, and the NYC Parks Enforcement (PEP), Manhattan Unit.