Unlocking NYC: These Keys To The City Actually Work

The gate to a baptistery in New York City is now open to the public.

hide captionThe gate to the baptistery at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City is open to those who hold the key. A public art project by Paul Ramirez Jonas in conjunction with Creative Time distributes master keys that unlock a number of sites, like the baptistery, throughout the city.

Paul Ramirez Jonas, Creative Time/AP

Think about the phrase "Key to the City." Bestowing ceremonial keys on heroes and celebrities is something mayors generally do. But what if everyone could have a key to the city, and you could bestow it on anyone you wish?

A public art project is making that happen this summer in New York City. The project is sponsored by the organization Creative Time, and the artist is Paul Ramirez Jonas. The main goal is to get people to see parts of the city they have never seen.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has given keys to the Dalai Lama and the New York Yankees, but, as he said at a recent news conference, "Those keys are merely symbolic. They actually don't open anything."

Yet this month everyone has the authority to give out a key to the city. They've made 25,000 Medeco keys — and these are not symbolic. They are functional.

"They are master keys that unlock padlocks, post office boxes, steel gates and secret compartments across the city," Bloomberg says.

There is a process for receiving the key: line up at a kiosk, choose a partner — a friend or a stranger — and go through a ceremony. The ceremony includes signing a big book and exchanging keys between partners.

Craig Snyder, a filmmaker, met Martin Fiasconaro on the line.

"I bestow the key to the city to Martin Fiasconaro, in consideration of being the educator of the day in Times Square. Do you accept this key to the city? Then by the power temporarily granted me in this work of art, I, Craig Snyder, award you this key," Snyder said in their ceremony. They signed the book and were congratulated.

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Along with the key comes a little blue passport, which lists all the sites. Most will be open all summer. One site is only minutes from the place where the keys are distributed. It's a box on a street lamp in the middle of New York's Bryant Park.

"We literally got our keys about five minutes ago and we thought let's check it out," said Iya Megre, a college student home for the summer. She opened the box, flipped the switch and waited a long time for the light to come on. Inside the box were scores of little pieces of paper, notes people had written and business cards. "Something's happening," she said. "There is a beginning of an illumination."

It may seem silly, but most people have never turned on a city street lamp. So it's something new. Each key opens 24 sites — a locker in a gym, a garden in an ashram, a baptistery in a church, a cemetery and a Faberge exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

One place you can use your key is the home of New York City mayors: Gracie Mansion. Nine city mayors have lived there, although Bloomberg does not. To use the key, participants have to take the official tour. Musician Robin Goldwasser said she was "hoping to find the ghost of mayors past." Halfway through the tour is a bedroom, and the key opens the closet. Mayor Bloomberg has joked that "there are rumors of ghosts in there. Who knows?"

It turns out there are no ghosts or mayors in the closet; there's a portrait and an original check written in 1797. Although a few key holders are disappointed, most admit they would never have gone on the tour if they had not gotten their keys. The main purpose of Creative Time's project had been achieved.

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