I recently heard about the artist Paul Ramirez Jonas (thanks to Kate Gilbert of Now and There) and discovered his wonderful participatory public art project The Key to the City, commissioned by Creative Time in New York City in 2010. How I wish I had heard about this project at that time, and been able to watch it unfold! Jonas crafted his project to explore the tensions between public and private spaces, the allure of the locked door, the question of who has access and why, the trust involved in sharing a key and the vulnerability this action creates. But he also created a catalyst for thousands of adventures, sending New Yorkers out to explore the far flung regions of their vast and complicated city.
Each of these adventures began in a small fenced space which Jonas dubbed "the commons" and sited amidst the hubub of Times Square. In this arena, two friends (or two strangers who met while waiting on line) would stand face-to-face and award a simple metal key to each other in a short ritual designed by the artist. A city key is an honor normally reserved for heroes and awarded at the culmination of a tickertape parade; for few weeks in June, thousands were given out by ordinary people to ordinary people. Anyone could participate.
During what was called "the bestowal ceremony," the giver of the key also made another kind of gift by crafting a phrase to acknowledge something significant about the receiver of the key. I might have said to a friend: "I Cecily Miller bestow to you this Key to the City in consideration of all the delicious meals you have made and shared with me when I was too hungry to feed myself." In return, my friend might have said to me: "I bestow this Key to the City in consideration of your uncanny ability to find the most fabulous outfits for me when we go shopping at the Goodwill together." Some of the actual exchanges were doubtless more profound, some less, but all involved looking at the person in front of you and appreciating their every day contribution to your relationship and to the work aday world around them.
Along with their Key to the City, participants received a guideboook to the 24 locations where their keys could unlock a door. Where were these doors? The list is a dream:
- The Cathedral of St. John the Divine
- The Coney Island Branch of the Public Library
- Gleason's Boxing Gym
- Gracie Mansion
- The George Washington Bridge
- The Louis Armstrong House Museum
- Eddie's Sweet Shop in Queens
- The Staten Island Buddhist Vihara
- The Brooklyn, Metropolitan and Whitney Museums
Although we could probably find out what was behind each locked door, we will never know what each intimate journey of discovery was like. Imagine all the nuances and particulars, the random and accidental encounters experienced along the way. The Keys were all identical, but each person participating in this public art project had a unique, individual, and -- if desired -- entirely private experience.
"Unlocking New York, One Date at a Time"
I came across a quintessential New York Times article chronicling the adventures of a young New Yorker who had the brilliant idea to use Jonas' public art project as a way to embark on 24 blind dates, each time taking a new man to one of the Key to the City sites. Since a reporter and photographer tagged along, we can catch a glimpse of one trip:
...by the time he and Ms. Burke had boarded a city bus on Staten Island for an hourlong ride to Tottenville — to reach Conference House Park, a Revolutionary War site and the southernmost point in New York City — they seemed to be hitting it off, in a way. He talked to her about the periodic table. She made fun of him: “Oh, I’ve heard that about cesium.”
The bus ride, past White Castles, bait shops and oncology offices, was not exactly picturesque, but Ms. Burke did not seem to mind. She clapped and bounced in her seat and took pictures of everything. And even when she and Mr. Freeman discovered what the key unlocked at their destination — a padlocked space beneath a wooden waterfront pavilion, where there was not a lot to see besides fish skeletons and a few empty Coors Lite cans — she was ecstatic.
“I feel like we’re going to Narnia or something,” she said, before taking Mr. Freeman for a long barefoot walk down the beach, with its view across Raritan Bay to Perth Amboy, N.J.
Ms. Burke is described as an exuberant 26-year old Manhattan lawyer who is "crazy in love with New York City...and unable to drink more than one caffeinated beverage a day." Would she have gone on a long barefoot walk down a beach in a remote area of Staten Island, and experienced this view across the water to Perth Amboy, NJ, without her Key to the City? I would guess not. So, in the end, her key was able to unlock far more than the 24 doors listed in the accompanying guide.