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Bay Area Creatives Find Unexpected Welcome in Small-Town Delta

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A person smiles and twirls flaming batons.
Marisa Gregory dances with lit torches as the Secrets of the Sea Circus Festival begins on Forbes Island in Brentwood, Contra Costa County, on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

The small communities tucked into the San Joaquin River Delta are full of contradictions. Located northeast of the San Francisco Bay Area, much of the area is populated by farmers growing crops like wheat, alfalfa and rice. But, visitors might also stumble upon a circus performed on board a huge boat made to look like an island, a community of free spirits living out of tiny homes plopped down in an RV park, even a woman walking a goose on a leash down the street in town. Needless to say, it can be a quirky place.

Once primarily known for farming, Delta communities are changing as people priced out of the Bay Area discover this relatively close region that still offers land and freedom. It has become particularly attractive to artists and other creatives looking to live in a place where they’re free to create without the pressures of city regulators and rising rents.

A lighthouse and a number of boats are seen across a stretch of water.
Forbes Island is seen during the Secrets of the Sea Circus Festival in Brentwood, Contra Costa County, on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

“The big question was, ‘Do I stay in the Bay Area, which is getting unsustainably expensive?’” said Michelle Burke, who used to be involved in running American Steel, a sprawling West Oakland artist collective. “My friends are being displaced. They’re losing their workspaces, their art spaces, their homes. It was just unsustainable.”

In Isleton, where Burke relocated, she’s got enough room on her property for six shipping containers to store materials and DIY projects. She’s one of many who have found the Delta to be a refreshing change.

“I took a motorcycle ride out here, and I was just kind of blown away with the vibe,” said Iva Walton, another transplant from Oakland who now owns the Mei Wah Beer Room in Isleton. “When people ask where Isleton is, I say, ‘It’s 50 miles and 50 years away from Oakland.’ I like that it’s sort of a little bit stuck in time.”

Walton used to work as a stage designer and tile setter in Oakland and San Francisco before moving to Isleton and opening her bar. Now, she’s serving her second term on the city council.

“People were very welcoming and appreciative of me doing a cool business here in town,” Walton said. “They were hungry for it, supportive of it.”

Sillouette's of a handful of people in the dusk with glowing orange clouds behind them.
Attendees gather to watch the Secrets of the Sea Circus Festival on Forbes Island. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

She likes that in Isleton, she’s friends with people who have different life experiences and opinions from her.

“Moving out here popped my Bay Area bubble,” she explained. “I used to think that Christians and conservatives wanted to kill me for being a big old, queer whatever. Completely not true.”

Instead, she’s found that people in the Delta are like her; they want to live and let live.

“Some of the people I’m closest to, some of my customers, are Christians and conservatives. There’s been nothing but good treatment.”

Two people hang on ropes from a light tower as people look on.
Audience members watch Roel Seeber (left) and Megan Lowe (right) dance off of the side of a lighthouse during the Secrets of the Sea Circus Festival. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

More space and opportunity

Heidi Petty, a watershed manager for the Contra Costa Resource Conservation District, moved from Benicia to Oakley in 2015. Petty was able to use the proceeds from the sale of her home to buy a property with two tiny houses on it, an ownership stake in a marina and a 21-acre cattle ranch on Bradford Island.

“I think the Delta changed who I [am],” Petty said. It made me realize the things I could do. If you’re willing to try things, the Delta will let you try them. That’s why I like the Delta.”

A person in an ornate hat smiles and looks at the camera.
Heidi Petty poses for a portrait at the Secrets of the Sea Circus Festival on Forbes Island in Brentwood, Contra Costa County, on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. Petty’s cattle ranch is off the shore of where the festival takes place, giving attendees a place to camp. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

In addition to her work for the county, Petty is now part of several creative endeavors, like Secrets of the Sea, an “immersive water circus” performed on a 5,000-square-foot barge docked near Petty’s ranch. The show was cofounded by Nikki Borodi, an artist who plans to produce future shows. Petty and the other owners of the marina have been transforming the barge, known as Forbes Island, into a performance venue.

Once a novelty restaurant docked in the San Francisco Bay, the owners towed the barge up to the Delta. It has palm trees, a 40-foot lighthouse and a full restaurant below deck. Secrets of the Sea was its inaugural event, where dancers suspended from the lighthouse by cables twisted and turned, a fire-eater performed on a raft in the river and a burlesque performer strutted her stuff below deck. Petty and her partners expect to stage more shows on the river when they move the barge to their marina on Bethel Island.

Three people seated applying makeup surrounded by two small buildings.
Performers Shannon Gray (left), Sam Malloy (center) and Myles Hochman (right) apply makeup before taking the stage at Secrets of the Sea Circus Festival. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

An artist herself, Petty is glad that more creatives are moving to the area. She’s noticed that when her artist friends go to a local bar, they do get noticed by longtime Delta residents because “they dress funny; they’re artists.”

“But more than anything, the locals are happy to see people clean things up,” Petty said. “They just appreciate people who make things better. Anybody who’s willing to work is pretty welcome in the Delta.”

One way to irritate folks here, though, is to refer to the Delta as the Bay Area.

“We don’t live in the Bay Area; we live in the Delta!” said John Bento, a local architect who grew up in Rio Vista.

Bento and other locals gathered at a farmers market in Rio Vista for a meeting organized by the California Delta Chambers & Visitors Bureau.

“The Delta is still funky,” said Bill Wells, the group’s executive director. “I think everybody has kind of the attitude of ‘mind your own business’ up here.”

A bar with people at night.
Attendees gather and listen to music after performances conclude at the Secrets of the Sea Circus Festival. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

While the newcomers are visible because of their aesthetic and creative projects, it’s not like people are flooding into these rural communities, he said. In fact, according to Wells, the population numbers have largely stayed the same for a hundred years. Still, some locals distrust the new people.

“The farmers that I talk to are more concerned about that than anybody else,” Wells said. “I think everybody else enjoys some controlled growth. The farmers are concerned because they have farm equipment, and they claim people are coming and stealing crap out of their farmyards.”

A person kneels and breathes fire at the end of a short jetty.
Ellie (who declined to give last name) breathes fire alongside his partner Ro (who declined to give last name) on a rotating dock during the Secrets of the Sea Circus Festival. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

It’s not clear who’s to blame if that’s true, Wells said, but it’s easy to be suspicious of the new people.

Who’s ‘a good fit for the Delta’?

“The people who are in the Delta are just amazing, wonderful people,” said Tim Anderson, a well-known figure in the maker community, who splits his time between Berkeley and a pig farm on Brannan Island along the San Joaquin River. Anderson’s crafty DIY sensibility is on display all over this farm, where he uses a battered sedan as a tractor and old apple crates to fence in his 100 pigs.

An acrobatic artist hanging by the arm during a performance.
Trapeze artist Shannon Gray is lifted out of the water during the Secrets of the Sea Circus Festival. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

He acknowledges that the Delta was thriving “without us newcomers.”

“There’s something about the obvious flood risk that repels uptight, control freak kind of people,” he said. “The people in the Delta are there to have a good time and not stop people from having hobbies.”

Anderson said many of his friends prefer to live in mobile tiny homes. In Oakland, they often ran up against permitting and regulation issues for tiny houses, but out in the Delta, there’s more space and fewer rules. There are 15 tiny houses at a marina down the road from Anderson’s pig farm and more are planned at another marina in Isleton for next year.

“My goal is to have all the high-functioning misfits move out to the Delta because that’s who’s a good fit for the Delta culture,” he said while unloading bales of hay from the roof and hood of his car. “We’re plugging into an existing society that is just miraculously compatible.”

A man with a hat sitting on the trunk of a car surrounded by pigs.
Tim Anderson, a well-known figure in the maker community, with his pigs on his pig farm on Brannan Island in November 2023. (John Kalish for KQED)

In early November, a bunch of Anderson’s friends got together in Isleton to carve giant pumpkins grown at a community farm on his property. The largest of the pumpkins was 350 pounds. The carvers fed the pumpkin flesh to his pigs and saved the seeds for eating later. Then, the friends hopped into their hollowed-out pumpkin crafts and paddled around in the San Joaquin River. It might seem wacky, but this type of exuberant, interactive art is an increasingly common sight around here.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include Nikki Borodi’s role in the Secrets of the Sea Circus Festival and the correct employer of Heidi Petty. 

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