The Key to the City

I have a key to the city—do you?

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “the Key to the City?” Foreign dignitaries? Important political leaders? Local heroes? (I personally think of the scene in Bye Bye Birdie when the mayor tries to give the key to the city to Conrad Birdie. …But, you know, that’s just me.) Traditionally, keys to the city are ceremonial, bestowed upon the worthy by City Hall for achieving or symbolizing something honorable. And in this city  of millions, keys aren’t just handed out willy-nilly to every average joe (or joe-ette, if you want to be politically correct) who wanders down the “New Yorker” side of 5th Avenue.

Since the start of June, however, artist Paul Ramírez Jonas and the experimental art company Creative Time have been letting ordinary New Yorkers in on the action. Anyone—every strap-hanging knickerbocker and wide-eyed tourist—can make his or her way to the Creative Time kiosk in Times Square (on Broadway between 43rd & 44th) and bestow or receive a key to the Big Apple. The concept is beautiful in its simplicity and yet revolutionary in its scope: you and a friend/lover/family member/complete stranger you met in line (which is not uncommon for this project) receive a key to the city and a little blue passport. In the passport you write your companion’s name and the reason for which you are giving them the key. In a short ceremony presided over by one of the Creative Time employees, you hand over the passport and key, enter your names in the large communal log book, and leave the kiosk a VIP.

The key you receive is not just for show—it’s an actual Medeco key (one of 25,000 created by Jonas for the project) that opens locks conveniently placed on boxes, gates, doors, and lockers in various locations around New York. The passport you receive has directions to each of the 24 locks, which can be found as close to the kiosk as a street light in Bryant Park on 6th Avenue or as far away as Staten Island and the Bronx. The goal of the project is to recognize the “thousands of people that deserve to be recognized”, but by providing actual access to places around the city, the project also makes you look at New York in a completely different way—and provides access to places you’d never imagine yourself visiting before receiving the key.

I decided to head down to the kiosk one recent Wednesday afternoon. The kiosk is open at 2 pm on weekdays, and I made sure to get there early because I’d heard the rumors about the long lines. (In fact, due to the response by the general public, they’ve had to cap the line at 6 pm so they can get everyone a key by closing time at 8 pm!) Fortunately—or unfortunately, since the kiosk is outside—it was a rainy day, so the wait was under an hour. I hadn’t wanted to make the trip alone, and I knew that I couldn’t invite just anyone to join me, so I invited one of my closest friends—a girl I had known since the 8th grade, and with whom I’d shared many years of between-rehearsal daydreams of one day living and working in the theatre in New York.

Umbrellas braced against the elements, she and I filled out our passports and made our way up the kiosk, where a friendly gentleman handed us our keys and explained the ceremony to us. The line snaked around the kiosk to a tented area, where a large book sat on a table. There, we filled in our names and the reasons for which we were bestowing the keys on one another. Page upon page had already been filled out by hundreds of other people just like the two of us—and page upon page remained to be filled. Once done, in official-sounding language we completed the ceremony by bestowing the keys and passports upon one another and signing our names as recipients on each other’s pages in the big book. The whole thing took about five minutes, but it was probably the most fulfilling five minutes I’d had yet that week. There’s something incredibly special about recognizing someone else for being special in your own life—and being recognized as special in someone else’s. It doesn’t require a great sacrifice or an act of heroism, a medal or a rank. It can be as simple as being someone’s rock for ten years, and weathering the eroding effects of growing up by refusing to grow apart.

Though the rain was getting worse, our day didn’t end with the ceremony. We decided to check out the Bryant Park lock. Squishing and squelching through the puddles, we made our way to a streetlight by the fountain and found a little green box. The key fit perfectly and swung open to reveal a light switch. Our key to the city had given us—and thousands of others—the power to turn on the streetlight. A simple power, perhaps, but still pretty exciting. The box was stuffed with papers left by past key holders—notes, business cards, and ephemera of all types. Without sounding corny, it was a pretty electric moment, feeling the current of connectivity that runs through each of us as we pass one another in the course of living in this too-often anonymous city.

Later that day, after heading back to campus, I went to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on 112th and Amsterdam. (And if you go to Columbia and haven’t yet been, shame on you! It’s a beautiful—accessible!—landmark that you should check out regardless of religion or creed). There was a lock on the gate leading to the baptistery, which is located in a hallway to the left of the altar. I stopped to ask a guard if I was going the right way, and he exclaimed, “Another one! What are you all doing?” While I was opening the lock, another couple came us behind me to do the same thing, and as I was leaving, I watched two teenage girls enter with their passports open.

I think the Key to the City is one of the most exciting experimental art projects I’ve ever seen—and I’m so glad that I got to be a part of it. It unfortunately ends on June 27th (this weekend), and some of the locks will remain up until Labor Day. If you get the chance this week, I highly encourage you to take someone down to the kiosk and give him or her a key—and then go explore the city together. I’ll leave you with this thought from the Creative Time website: “Key to the City expands [Paul Ramirez Jonas’] longstanding interest in the key not so much as an object, but a vehicle for exploring social contracts as they pertain to trust, access, and belonging.”

PS Did I mention that it’s free? Because it’s free. Go now.

PPS Follow @creativetimenyc on Twitter for news and updates on line lengths, arrivals of very important persons, and other such excitements. For videos, photos, and audio, see Time Out NY, The Gothamist, and NPR, respectively.

PPPS Click here for a really interesting slideshow of images from projects that creative time has done for the last 33 years. (And if you consider pasties offensive, then one image is NSFW.)


Kay Prins SoA ‘12

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