Does the Key to the City Actually Open Anything?

LOUIS LANZANO/Landov

The short answer: no.

The long answer: Once upon a time, being presented with the key to the city served a real function. In ancient times, when it was common for European towns to be ringed by walls, visiting dignitaries were presented with a key to the city gate as a gesture of trust and kindness; these particular visitors could come and go as they pleased with the assumption that they wouldn't be returning with a militia to lay siege to the city.

Today’s gesture of presenting keys is similar in sentiment if not function. And sometimes, not surprisingly, it’s just a PR stunt (see Kardashians, below). When mayors present keys to their cities these days, they’re also a lot fancier than I imagine those old gate keys were: the ones handed out by New York City are gold-plated.

An incomplete list of people who have received keys to cities:

  • Saddam Hussein received the key to Detroit in 1980 after making a sizable donation to a church there.
  • The Kardashian-Jenner family received the key to Beverly Hills in 2010.
  • Pilot Chesley Sullenberger (above) received the keys to New York City and to his hometown of Danville, California, after safely landing a plane in the Hudson River after birds were sucked into the engine.
  • Regis Philbin received the key to NYC two years later when he retired from his TV gig.
  • Usher was given a key to New Orleans in recognition of his charitable work.
  • Members of the Jackson 5 were each awarded the key to their hometown of Gary, Indiana.
  • Members of the Three 6 Mafia have keys to the city of Memphis.
  • Axl Rose can open up imaginary doors in West Valley City, Utah.
  • Cher angered a bunch of Aussies earlier this year when she sold her key to Adelaide, Australia, for $96,000 on eBay. She received the key in 1990 for performing at the Formula One Grand Prix there. She responded to the backlash on Twitter: “'I'm upset 2 & trying 2get2 bottom! I think my office f***** up?"

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May 23, 2012 - 4:33pm
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