Too poor for San Francisco, not poor enough for Detroit.

After a two-week long detour in shiny Toronto where I was wined, dined, entertained, and thoroughly spoiled by my loving friend, Detroit tends to look even more run down, decayed and sometimes, even inhospitable.

My accommodations are comfortable enough though rather grimy, and I’m enrolled in an unglamorous Artist Residency program that some of my peers may even call dubious.  The neighborhood is one of the hardest hit in terms of “blight” with numerous vacant buildings in various states of decay.  Empty, nature filled lots in between every two to three houses creates a semi-rural landscape.  You don’t come here expecting a white wall art studio and a full fledged residency program.  That I understand.  Maybe in a few years though.  Strangely enough, this is exactly what I wanted.

Thanks to the radically self reliant efforts of a small group, local folks, students of alternative urban planing and social equity activists, this community seems to be on the path to recovery. My host Jason Lindy, being a leading member in this movement, keeps a vigilant eye on the hood, knows the houses within miles, their history, their owner, their current state and residents.  Almost everyone on this block knows each other, keeps an eye on things and helps out.  If you’re interested in experiencing the forefront of community activism in Detroit, this is one of the best places to be.

A walk around the neighborhood reveals several urban community farms. A very well established one called Oakland Avenue Urban Farm is only three blocks away.  A narrow path within the planted plots take you to a small gathering space at the center of the OAU Farm where you can sit and delight in the irony of it all.  The neighborhood is called North End.

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Fool House
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Baka…short for Chewbaka.

I am beyond happy that there is a dog in the house. Dogs just make life so much more fun!  I take her on exploration walks during which we’re both equally delighted by rabbit and squirrel sighting.  I hear there’s even been some coyote and fox sightings.
On the night of my arrival, the beginning of an unseasonably sweltering week, I learned that the newly renovated income-contingent art loft that I had applied for months before, and, had made all my long-term plans based on, is rejecting my application.  Apparently, with my two gigs a year teaching job and supplemental teachers unemployment benefit, I exceed their income limit!  The news was quite a blow and threw me into a spiral of desperation until, wait for it…the weather cooled down!  Yes, I’m blaming the heat.  Not used to it.  Don’t like it.  I find temperatures over 65 degrees to be oppressive.  There, I said it.  Any attempt at creativity proved futile.  Working with charcoal while the fan is on?  Not a good idea.  All of my already packed belongings waiting to be shipped from SF had to be put on hold, including a bin full of art supplies, as I figure out my long term plan.

To clear my head, as is often the case, creative process began with cleaning and organizing.  Sometimes it takes days of mental preparation before I can focus on the actual doing part.  That part usually moves forward pretty smoothly since every scenario has already been imagined and worked out while doing other activities, i.e. cleaning and organizing.  Jason has generously offered the entire house as my canvas.  The first charcoal drawing has already started on my bedroom wall.  Strategically not a good idea but structurally rather interesting.  After covering the entire room with tarp, the project has been progressing without a hitch.

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Wall drawing faze one
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Work in progress

The short heat induced waiting period worked out really well.  In particular because it focused me on finding my material directly from the environment.  Couple of nights before I start the drawing, there was a “speak easy” held at a neighbor’s backyard.  A monthly gathering organized by my residency for introductions, performance, story telling, spoken word, music, and general community building.  During the event, Jason did a ritual burning of leaves and twigs over a fire pit as he read our collective future with tarot cards.  The charcoal for my drawing was supplied the next day by the fire pit.

While everything that I appreciated during my first visit is now observed with a critical eye, there are aspects of Detroit life that I continue to be touched by: People making eye contact, waving hello as they drive or ride their bike past your house, the DIY spirit, the general warmth and the easy rhythmic flow of casual conversation, urban farms…

To me, a jaded San Franciscan, there is a sense that the ground is fertile and anything can take root here.  And, remarkably, most everyone seems welcoming and open to it.  Question is, where do I fit in?

Side note but not entirely unrelated, places where I’ve felt most at home: museums, concerts, cafes, and sitting by my computer working, connecting with the world that I know, and writing this blog.

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Not at Starbucks!
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Are we there yet?

I have never felt so undecided in my entire life.
Plan was to rent or lease a car, maybe even buy one if affordable, pack enough for 2 to 6 months residence in Detroit, and hit the road on June 1st.  Simple enough.  Exciting!
I was to fly to Toronto on June 7th so, the road trip had to be efficient with little time to explore off road.  All seemed to go in that direction until…

As the date of departure closed in, a nagging pressure began to build, suddenly my heart and mind seemed to pull in two opposite direction.
Is this fear? I asked myself.  Every part of the plan came under scrutiny, every aspect of the road trip criticized.  Suddenly, things weren’t as simple, excitement turned into anxiety.

I have moved around in my life quite a lot.  Life has equipped me with the essential survival skills and habits required in dealing with the emotional and physical challenges of uprooting oneself.  A year ago this time I was fully committed to doing this.  I was considering Reno and Detroit as the two most likely locations to move to.  Among other places considered: Iran, Mexico, Spain, little town USA, some little coastal town USA, Oakland CA, Richmond CA, Boston, NY, New Orleans, New Hampshire.

Vanishing Points, Canessa Gallery - 2016
Vanishing Points, Canessa Gallery

I was imagining myself living a hermetic life devoted to my art as I slowly ran my roots in fresh soil.  In fact, I spent the year in a quiet restless state, wishing I was there already.  “There” being the proverbial new “home” or, the potential of it.  Or perhaps just a trial period during which I deeply delve into the meaning of “home.”

After intense hours of mulling over the details, I finally decided to fly directly to Toronto, and to Detroit afterwards. Ticket was purchased before you could say road trip.  Immediate plans were made to ship the smallish cargo that I was to drive with me to Detroit.

By the way, if you haven’t experienced the modern day shipping services, boy, you’re in for a real treat!  The sheer volume of spam solicitation was enough to drive me off the wall.  I had barely filled out a price request online before my mailbox and phone got barraged by sales pitch and offers from dozens and dozens of companies. The CIA could learn a thing or two from these guys on finding a target. And when did it get so expensive to ship stuff out of state?!  Sheesh..

In any case, it was enough to make me think twice about the decision but, I’d already bought my airline ticket, so…

Restlessness, need for a new environment, excitement vs. anxiety, heartbreak over leaving the place that I love, my friends, family.  The push and pull has been non stop.  It is four weeks later as I write this and wish I could say that I have found some sense of peace, equilibrium, or at least satisfaction over already being here.  Not so.  I think it was Gertrude Stein who said, “there is no there there.”

And So It Begins. Again.

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The first time I visited San Francisco was after a failed attempt to live in LA in 1983.  Took a Greyhound bus from Boston with total of $5 in my pocket and a bunch of cheese sandwiches wrapped up in Saran Wrap in my purse.  Plan was to spend the money on food only if I’m completely and utterly sick of eating cheese sandwiches.

The trip was epic, including the severe head cold and fever caused by the blasting air-conditioner which, by the second day, forced me to spend my entire budget on a bowl of hot soup at one of the lunch stops on the road.

By third day, my mom who lived in LA at the time, could barely recognize my voice when I called to give her my ATA from a public phone somewhere near California state line.  Illness notwithstanding, it was quite an adventure and an opportunity to see the heartland, even if barely passing through.

Before returning to Boston, my uncle and I drove to San Francisco to visit my Grandmother.  He took on the role of a tour guide and drove me around the city.  We made the obligatory visit to the Golden Gate Bridge among other common tourist stops and took our requisite photos against the fogged up orange monument.  I watched the thick stream of fog dip under the bridge and thought to myself, if there’s one place in the west coast that I would want to live, it would be San Francisco.

Fast forward to 8 years later when, with no real long-term plan, I arrived in San Francisco to stay with my sister who had recently moved to the city.  That was 25 years ago.

I felt a kinship with this city.  I felt that perhaps in another lifetime I’d lived here.  The eccentric and somewhat grungy history, architecture and art, the spectacular views at every turn, the year round cool breeze, and that fog…it all seemed to have been made for my sensory pleasure.   I felt right at home.

For the first time since 1978 when IIMG_2565 left Iran, I felt like I can “settle down”.  Few years later, still feeling the thug of “homeland” every time I’d hear the word “Iran,” I made a conscious decision to officially make San Francisco my home.  To me, this meant accepting the fact that I may never return to Iran, to push away homesick pangs, to begin building a community that kept me rooted in this city.

This was sometime in mid 90s.  I was in love, about to finish grad school and had everything to look forward to.  Adamant to make my living as an artist, I also had a staggering student loan debt to look forward to.  But, in my naive optimism, I was imagining a successful career as an art educator and a professional artist.

Fast forward to 2016, one divorce and a couple of recessions and economy booms later, after several involuntary studio changes, two bankruptcies, friends found and lost, career built on shaky grounds, I find myself feeling alienated, discouraged, displaced.  The past 25 years have been a marathon of playing catch up with the ever growing inflation on an adjunct faculty and part time manager salary, and I’m tired.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s been good times.  Great times even.  But, for some time now I’ve been wondering if my love for San Francisco justifies the fact that, after 15 years of steadily working two jobs I still don’t have much to show for.  At my age, I should be able to take care of my aging mom and have some savings put aside for retirement.  Not so.

And so, I’ve begun casting my gaze across the familiar pasture, looking for a new direction.  Moving to another place seems unavoidable but do I have to completely uproot myself?  Compared to as recent as a year ago, once again great promising things are happening for artists in San Francisco.  But I’ve begun questioning what “home” really means again and can’t stop now.