This is one of several profiles of the people who make the Mission District what it is today. They are part of our My Mission Zine. You can buy a copy here. If you have trouble, just send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When he turned 20, Roger Marenco discovered a vacant lot near his Mission District home and he got a wild idea.
He assembled a team of artists and spent months trying to beat the Guinness World Record for largest mural, intending to paint a one-acre image on the face of the property.
A developer started building apartments on the lot before the team could finish the mural. But Marenco was irrevocably hooked on the idea of collaborate art.
A decade later, he started wrangling people to paint murals along a fence that his family shared with neighbors. After three years and almost 100 artist contributors, Marenco isn’t sure how much longer his project will continue. Nearby property owners plan to develop the land where the fence stands.
When Marenco comes across kids marking the neighborhood with graffiti, he tells them, “Come on, stop tagging up that house. Just come over here and we’ll give you some space to actually do a mural, express your creativity.”
“Not a lot of people reach out to them,” he said of the troubled youths.
Recently, the murals have followed the theme of “immigration” and before that they depicted women of power. Marenco said the next batch will be about gentrification and recent evictions in the city.
Marenco said he’s within his legal rights to paint the fence because it’s his and other nearby residents’ shared property. But community members have added other accoutrements — tables, chairs and makeshift gardens — to the lot that contains the fence and runs along South Van Ness Avenue, between 23rd and 24th streets. Technically, they’re trespassing, but the lot’s owners aren’t currently using it for anything, he said.
The owners have recently pushed back. A billboard on the premises announces that they intend to open a new grocery store to replace the defunct Delanos’s Market, which stands vacant in a corner of the lot. When artists painted beyond the fence itself, on the walls near the abandoned building, “within a few days, [the owners] just completely painted over it,” Marenco said.
Now, he’s trying to persuade a local artist to add a new mural to the fence, depicting the gentrification and displacement that’s “happening in the Mission District, and all throughout San Francisco,” he said. “I’d like for it to represent the struggle that low-income people, and people of color, are going through.”
That has made it harder for Marenco to get new artists to contribute to the wall because they don’t want their murals to get destroyed too.
To say that Marenco is involved in his community is a bit of an understatement. In fact, I personally located him for this article by merely knocking on doors, asking residents who lived near the murals if they knew the guy who maintained them. “Oh yeah, my husband has his cell,” one person told me.
Lately, Marenco has been embedding himself in another San Francisco sub-community: public transit workers.
For two years, he’s been driving buses for Muni along the 38 Geary, 8 Bayshore and the 14 Rapid lines. “It’s a difficult job, mentally, emotionally, spiritually,” he said.
The work has taught him the value of the city’s bus and lightrail system, which he called “the bloodline that gives life to this city.” But he bemoaned the working conditions: Muni drivers are under intense pressure from management to keep up with unrealistic transit schedules while navigating dangerously narrow traffic lanes, he said. “I absolutely hate it.”
Last December, he ran for president of the Muni operators union, Local 250A. “I came close to winning” he said.
He plans to run again. And if he wins, he says he’ll make some big changes.