Labor Day weekend marked the final days of the city-wide art project Key to the City by Paul Ramirez Jonas. Adventure seekers sought keys from a temporary kiosk in Times Square, which left them with a handsome, key-shaped ticket to various New York City locations and a booklet detailing where, when, and how to find them.
As a native New Yorker residing in Brooklyn it was difficult to bring myself to places to which I had never been. The more familiar locations around Manhattan and Brooklyn all yielded fun and interesting surprises, particularly the display case of Fabergé trinkets hidden behind a locked door in the Brooklyn Museum. Unfortunately, due to a late start, some of the locks had been broken or discarded, such as the broken key jammed in the lock at Bryant Park. Still, I managed to make it to six locations around the Bronx and Queens.
The highlights were the Point Community Development Corporation and Tortilleria Nixtamal. The former was situated in Hunt’s Point off the Bronx River, where the key opened a brick shack with the instructions to use the various art supplies to leave something behind. By the time I made it, almost all the paint had been used and many people had left their mark – on the walls, on the floors, even on the ceilings. I wrote a quick note and walked through Hunt’s Point Park, which maintains a small swimming area in the Bronx River itself. The latter, Tortilleria Nixtamal, began with a mysterious wait for the kitchen staff to prepare for my visit. Eventually I was taken downstairs where they showed me how they prepare their specialty corn tortillas, and invited me to prepare one myself. I left, lopsided tortilla in hand, knowing not just a little more about Queens, but also a little more knowledgeable about Aztec baking. One of the most unexpected points of the trip was the stuffed P.O. box at the Postnet location in the Bronx, where a particularly generous New Yorker had left a piece of Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s ‘Gates’ taped to an index card. The overlap between these two projects – a celebration of the city and its public spaces – can’t be overlooked.
New York is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, but with a relatively small square mileage compared to other global metropolises. It is almost easier, as a visitor, to see the city; despite the cultural and historical vastness, New Yorkers can remain surprisingly insular. Jonas’ piece brought us both out-of-doors and out-of-borough, some as far as the southernmost edge of the state. The greatest part of the project was not finding what was locked, but what was unlocked; what was free and open to the community whenever we were willing to go. A key to the city, historically, is a symbol of freedom and trust. The over 25,000 keys distributed not only strengthens our understanding of the New York, but our understanding of our home, workplace, and community. To become open and trusting to one another is an urgent, much-needed message, a sad and poignant lesson to our city.
All pictures via.