Key to the City: The Stranger Danger Changer

As if I needed any more of a reason to fall in love with this city.

So there’s this massive city-wide art project called Key to the City, right?
And you know how Keys to the City are usually given in a schmancy ceremony involving a Mayor and a dignitary/undeserving-celebrity and trumpets and stuff, right?

What artist Paul Ramírez Jonas is trying to accomplish, among many things, is bringing the excitement, prestige and bougiosity of Key to the City-giving to the common folk. Thousands and thousands of common folk.
For the past few weeks, a Key to the City kiosk has been holding Key-Giving ceremonies in the middle of Times Square. And by ceremony, I mean red carpet, iron fence, fake grass, proctor — teh works. You can’t just get a key; it must be bestowed upon you. Your key, should you choose to accept it, opens 24 different rooms, boxes, padlocks, fences across the five boroughs of New York.
It opens secret doors in museums.
It opens switch boxes to lamps in parks.
It opens heavily locked gates to abandoned churches.
It opens your boundaries, basically.


Today, I wandered into the line after work and, because we all didn’t know about the need-a-partner-to-bestow part, participated in a ceremony with two complete strangers: A Major League Baseball intern who shares my love for Claddaugh rings, and a Harvard Law student who didn’t mind taking a video of the whole wonderfully bizarre thing.

Stranger Danger Changer Moment #1:

20 minutes earlier, we didn’t know each other from any other faceless yuppy shoving past you in Times Square. But when our ceremony officially ended, we lingered for a second.
“…You guys wanna take a picture?”
We took a damn picture. Then we stepped off the platform, stared down at our keys and lingered again.
“…So… Are we never going to see each other again?”
We laughed, high-fived, promised to Facebook each other and stay updated on each others’ Key adventures, said goodbye and head towards our respective boroughs.

Then I detoured.
I work about 4 feet away from the closest Key spot, which I knew turned on a lamp in Bryant Park.
Sidenote: “Why the hell not” is a wonderful life motto.


Stranger Danger Changer Moment, #2:

I followed the map they gave us & opened a small metal switch box. What caught my attention was not the coolness of access to a switch in a public park; it was what surrounded the switch.

Letters. Lovenotes.
Little messages of excitement scribbled on Whole Foods receipts.
Stickers. Business cards.
Even a little tub of bubbles.

I sat and read through all of them with – you guessed it – even more cool Key-bearing strangers. I felt compelled to take some of the trinkets with me, but wouldn’t that be ruining the purpose? Cutting off all kinds of possible webs of influence?
There was a note that simply said, “We shared something, though we don’t know each other. Thanks for sharing.”

We all left something behind. One guy left a Sharpied-on nickel; one girl left a tampon with a message on it (yeah. You read it. It was still in its package, but you still read it). I left a bandaid and on it, I wrote “Heal“; someone’s gonna need it, I think. We all wished each other a great summer, slash great life? and went on our way… leaving behind another group of curious and charmed strangers.


Someone you know is, at the least, an acquaintance.
Someone you don’t know is a stranger.
Someone, thousands of someones, whom you only know through a shared appreciation of adventure and wonder and cool shit, and thousands more little shared moments, past, present and future, of “…Wow. Sick.”

…What do you call them?

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  • Jenna

    Berna, I LOVE this. This sounds like an incredible opportunity. If I ever find myself in New York City, I wholeheartedly intend to have a key bestowed upon me. This is seriously just one of those awesome things that the world should have more of.. especially since it facilitates such encounters and shared experiences with strangers. Ah. I hope (but actually have no doubt) that you’re having the time of your life and that the internship of your dreams is going well and whatnot. I’m secretly maybe living vicariously through you from over here.

    DOZ love from Seattle,

    (PS. The whole “why the hell not” motto really is wonderful. Thanks for reminding me)

    • bernadetteanat

      Jeeeennnaaaa! My dear twin, I’ve been meaning to tell you: If you still have any inkling of interest in magazines, please, for the love of several holy things, apply for ASME after your junior year. It is literally DOZ for the magazine industry and it is turning this summer into the best one of my life (this is just the program & the people itself; the internship a whole other wonderful, unbelievably kick-ass entity).

      Plus, I have no doubt that NYC will continue such mind-blowing art/recreation exhibits two years from now. This city is also another, separate, unbelievably kick-ass entity. I think that’s what makes Key to the City even cooler–New York has this reputation of being tough and abrasive and unfriendly to tourists, but I’ve met some of the most open and down-to-earth brosephs/brosephinas here who are the kind of kick-ass people that gravitate towards stuff like this. It’s just that I’m-too-busy-for-you bubble that people usually wear on the outside, walking around like they needed to be somewhere 5 minutes ago. I’d say about 90% of the people who look like that here are totally bullshitting and just waiting for someone/something to pop said bubble. Enter: Key to the City! POP.

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