What Can You Open With a Key to the City?

Capt. Sully Sullenberger just got a key to New York. Can I call him if I lock myself out?

US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger 

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg feted Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his crew at City Hall on Monday. The mayor also presented Sullenberger with a key to the city—a token of thanks for successfully landing US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River last month after a flock of birds disabled the plane’s engines. What does the key open?

Nothing. Made by Ashburns Engravers, Sully’s gold-plated key to the city is a replica of a key to City Hall from the early 19th century. Although the original door still stands (at the back entrance), the Ashburns replica key, which cost the city about $100, won’t turn the lock because at 5¾ inches in length, it’s actually smaller than the original. The police officers charged with protecting City Hall keep the real keys, although the main entrances generally remain unlocked, their function obviated by the 24-hour guard.

The tradition of conferring upon heroes and luminaries a key to the city dates back at least to medieval Europe. When a monarch or other ruler came to visit a town in his dominion, the city council would greet him at the gates and prepare a “joyous entrance,” with flowers, dancing, singing, and so forth. The citizens would also present him with a key—probably a functional one—as a gesture of obedience but also, paradoxically, of autonomy. By offering a key, the citizens demonstrate that they have not been forced to grant the monarch entry and that they might have chosen not to. In medieval Europe, there was also a related custom of giving certain tradesmen preferred status so that they could enter a gated town on commercial business without first paying a toll.

As the New York Times pointed out Monday, there’s a local tradition in New York of key-to-the-city recipients falling from grace. Baseball players Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez were both given keys (in June 2003 and August 2007 respectively), and both have since been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. At least New York never honored a dictator. After donating several hundred thousand dollars to a Detroit church in 1979, Saddam Hussein received a key to the city.

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Explainer thanks Paul Freedman of Yale University and Jason Post of the New York City Mayor’s Office.