The benchmark

How one New Yorker’s latest publication was created on a park bench.

By Kim Hastreiter
Illustration by Pierre Mornet

A letter from… Washington Square Park. - © System Magazine

How one New Yorker’s latest publication was created on a park bench.

It was all a bit shocking and weird when Covid-19 first reared its ugly head in New York City and shut us down early last March. Suddenly my only connection with the street became my terrace overlooking Washington Square, and my only connection with my people was on Zoom. The trauma from the terror of a raging pandemic devastating NYC in April was real. It was compounded by the racist incompetence and criminal behaviour of you-know-who, and the sudden detonation of rage as tens of thousands took to the street with BLM after George Floyd’s murder by a policeman, which unmasked the underlying white supremacy that our country had been built upon for the past 400 years. It was a lot. March melted into April and then May and I felt lost and unproductive. All I could do was cook soup.

Despite the chaos and trauma, crocuses still bloomed, and spring arrived on schedule. (You can always count on nature for a reality check.) I cried constantly, but slowly ventured outside for walks dressed in moonsuit-like protection and began meeting my amazing friends – who I missed desperately – every day on my favourite bench in the park downstairs. My artist nephew Max even made me a cute ‘Kim’s office’ sign to hang on the back of my bench. I had been starved of human contact and was dying to know what all my amazing, creative New York peeps, young and old, had been thinking, seeing, doing and working on in their isolation. What did they think of this new now? Were they crying every day like me? How was a 23-year-old living this shitshow? One of my favourite young artists, Jack Shannon, described how his friend had a van with a great sound system and would text their posse, often after midnight, to meet up in a parking lot on the West Side Highway across from the Whitney Museum where they would dance for hours. I began feeling tinges of inspiration; I realized stuff was being created, but because of Covid isolation, none of these ideas were being shared.

Now, I’m a natural problem solver; I live for emergencies. (I could have been a triage nurse.) Yet I was stumped about how to fix what was going on and it was driving me nuts. Then, one sleepless night at 3am in early June, as I ate my third cannabis gummy, I suddenly had an epiphany. So many of us couldn’t produce work because the ground we stood on was unstable and the rug was being pulled out from us every single day. How can you create anything new if you don’t even know where you are starting from?

I had millions of opinions about what was going on and became energized by comparing notes in my park ‘office’with the other alternative thinkers I’d knock heads with. Everyone seemed to be feeling traumatized and alone, and having trouble making work. So I decided to create a historical document that would humanize the ‘NOW’ – a simple black-and-white newspaper that would bear witness to what living through this insanity actually meant to my beloved community. I’d make a non-commercial public artwork, a generous, pure and multigenerational public service: free of charge, free of ads, and free of the internet (and the echo chambers of social media). And I’d call it The New Now.

From my park bench, I began to ask different people I knew, loved and admired to contribute their views on subjects I’d been thinking about. It turned out everyone
had been thinking about the same things: time, animals, nature, dreams, God, coping mechanisms, mortality, sex, generational differences in future outlooks, wage and food injustice, mental health, baking bread, and yes, soup. (Everyone was cooking soup.) Once the stories rolled in from my talented friends, including Michael Stipe, Laila Gohar, Ted Muehling, Cheryl Dunn, Bethann Hardison, Andre Walker, and as I began putting them altogether, I realized that the New Now was just like one of the great dinner parties I often throw, gathering amazing people together who I know, want to get to know, and want to get to know each other. In retrospect, doing this newspaper was really my personal coping mechanism, my way of dealing with this tragic time. Working intimately with each contributor made me feel totally inspired and much less alone, and I even got to meet new people and make new friends doing it. Since we launched, many of the 6,000 people who got a
copy have written to thank me and tell me that The New Now made them feel uplifted and less alone. What more could I want?

Taken from System No. 17.