Most people have seen the key to the city being given to esteemed colleagues or honored guests, with the idea that the person has earned the honor to access to everything the city has to offer. The idea goes back to the French who originally used the idea as “the freedom of the city.” Originally it was given to people to free them from serfdom within a specific city or municipality, but has simply been transformed into a symbolic gesture of welcoming specific honorees and giving them freedom of movement throughout the city.
Back when cities were surrounded by castle walls, moats, and large wooden doors, a key was required to get in and out of the city during specific times. Think of it as a curfew of sorts, with the only way to gain access to the city outside of the curfew hours was through having the key to the city. Today, the phrase does have such realities to deal with but does convey the idea that wherever the person goes they will be welcome.
You have to be careful who you give the key to the city to though, because when tracing its original meaning back it could cause more than a few problems. Take for example the time the city of Detroit gave a key to the city to Saddam Hussein in 1980. The reason? Hussein just happened to make a large donation to a Detroit church. There is no evidence he used it for anything, and if he were alive today there wouldn’t be much to open.
On the other hand, consider that the Kardashian-Jenner clan was given the key to Beverly Hills in 2010.
Sometimes the honor is given to someone truly worthy of it. Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) who successfully landed a jet on the Hudson River when his engines completely failed, not only has a movie made about him, but was awarded keys to both New York City and his hometown of Danville, Illinois. Saving the lives of over 100 people in a landing that had rarely been attempted, let alone successfully, is something that warrants both trust and admiration.
The question is just how big of a deal is awarding the key to the city to someone? One answer comes from the Land Down Under, when singer and actress Cher was awarded the key to the city of Adelaide, Australia in honor of her performance at the Formula One Grand Prix in 1990. Cher apparently either lost control of her professional staff or herself, when the key was found on eBay, auctioned at $96,000. The backlash she received from the town was palpable.
As is evident from these examples, simply the offer of the key to the city is done with careful consideration. Perhaps that is why it isn’t done much anymore. In part, it is an ancient tradition that doesn’t have much meaning in today’s computer encrypted keys and the issue of security is constantly on everyone’s mind. Another reason is that there are far fewer people who can be trusted with unfettered access to a city, whether symbolic or actual.
If there is a 21st century meaning to the idea of a key to the city, it would be that a majority of the population of a city or town, or its officials, have chosen to honor a particular person in light of an event that has made a significant on the lives of people. In America, freedom of movement is generally accepted as a right (though that concept is challenged regularly now) and being offered the key is free of any political connection.
These reasons are why you rarely see anyone being offered a key to any city. Being political is what drives the culture, and who to honor is often a matter of a group of people rather than a single person (first responders versus a single firefighter). The truth is everybody is a hero for one reason or another, which dilutes the idea of recognition of individual acts of heroism, making the key to the city a relic. Cher sold hers for almost $100k, and in retrospect she may have done the right thing, cashing in while the key still had value.