“All this happened, more or less.” —Kurt Vonnegut
Sometimes, it’s hard for any story in the Mission to avoid becoming the Mission story: Gentrification, displacement and change in a neighborhood that’s seen more than its share of all of the above.
So it goes with the matter of Sirron Norris’ backyard.
This is, at its most basic, just what it sounds like it is: a dispute over a modest, shared backyard behind a subdivided storefront on 24th Street. But it has become more than that. It has become the Ur-Mission story: Gentrification, displacement, change, landlord-tenant issues, race, class, and questionable behavior by individuals acting as neighborhood gatekeepers. It has spilled out onto social media — and, now, media media — and can no longer be kept quiet and dealt with in-house.
Gentrification, displacement, et al. cannot be cleanly and expediently solved. But, make no mistake, rational human beings can and should be able to satisfactorily resolve differences regarding a backyard — a backyard one tenant wants her disabled child to be able to play in, while another tenant runs children’s programs there. This is not a moonshot, and we’ll get to all that.
But first, the matter at hand. It’s hard to start at the beginning of the Mission story because, really, where’s the beginning? So we’ll start when Sirron Norris began tweeting.
Sirron Norris is a palindrome you may or may not know. But the happy, cartoon-like blue bears populating intricate, colorful murals of a surreal but distinctly San Francisco landscape? Those you’ve probably seen.
On June 23 at 8 a.m., Norris tweeted “My studio neighbor threatened to call the cops on me — the fire department has been at my studio twice on anonymous calls. I’m teaching kids!!! I have a permit!! It’s only Wednesday!!!”
All of this happened, more or less. And more: His neighbor went ahead and did call the cops on him, and, not quite one week later, he was visited in his 2860 24th St. studio by a pair of officers. Then, on July 2, his studio was visited by a city building inspector, following an anonymous complaint.
Throughout late June and early July, Norris’ social media feeds grew increasingly fraught. He alleged that he was the victim of a neighborhood harassment campaign.
Norris says the fire and police personnel who visited him behaved in an exemplary manner. But uniformed fire inspectors entering his studio while he was running a free art program for local kids from Mission Educational Projects, Inc. irked him — and armed police dropping by, regardless of their kindly and professional demeanor, terrified him.
“I was shaking, dude,” recalls Norris, a Black man from Cleveland who has lived most of his 48 years in San Francisco. The police who visited him “were good. Don’t get me wrong. They did not try to make me nervous or anything like that. They were genuinely curious about what was going on. But I was thrown. So I was not trying to make that shit [last] long.”
By the time a building inspector left a tag on his door in early July, the pressure had grown beyond what he could take. He hopped in his car and visited his retired parents in Arizona. On July 6, he posted on Twitter and Instagram a stylized self portrait mimicking the movie poster for The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Norris’ own visage replaced Jimmie Fails’ and a pensive blue bear stood in for Jonathan Majors; the text was altered to read “The Last Black Man on 24th Street.”
Norris’ studio was closed and locked this week; it’s next scheduled to open on July 12 for a session of summer youth camp. And Norris is waiting to see what, if any, vestige of city government is waiting to greet him when he arrives.
While Norris was out of town, your humble narrator dropped in next door and visited Norris’ next-door neighbor, Laura Rios of Laura’s Beauty and Barber Shop. While Norris has accused her of targeting him for harassment, she says that, far from harassing him, he has been harassing her. Not surprisingly, he denies this.
She says she had nothing to do with the Fire Department personnel who visited him on June 9 and June 22 after anonymous complaints that Norris was illegally running a school (the San Francisco Fire Department tells Mission Local that these complaints “have been closed as No Merit.”).
She also says the web complaint to the Department of Building Inspection was filed by someone else. But the cops? Yes, she called the cops on June 23. “He said, ‘I can’t believe you called the Fire Department on me,’” Rios recalls while she and her husband, in turn, cut and trim a young customer. “And I said, ‘this harassment, the way you are treating me, this has to stop. I’m calling the police.’”
And she did that.
Rios says Norris is both disrespectful and “aggressive,” which he also denies. He does not deny he exchanged words with her about the prior Fire Department visits on June 23, but does deny that he shouted at her, as Rios claims (visitors to Norris’ studio that day tell Mission Local that they did not hear any loud confrontation).
There are a lot of issues at play here. Rios is a Mexican immigrant who has worked out of this shop for 15 years; Norris is a Black man from the midwest with a long Mission history, but who only moved his studio next door last year. There is also the hardly trivial matter of active litigation between the landlords and Rios. And the subject of that litigation is, in part — you guessed it — the matter of Sirron Norris’ backyard.
On April 9, Norris says he met with Erick Arguello and John Mendoza, who have long been associated with Calle 24, the Latino Cultural District and merchant group. The subject matter was his backyard — which, by then, Norris was using for youth art activities.
We can’t know for certain what was said, but whatever it was made an impression on Norris. Rios says that, on the very day of the meeting, Norris frantically stuck his head into her barbershop and shouted “You can use the backyard!”
Norris denies shouting, but doesn’t deny this exchange.
We can also know what Norris immediately texted to one of his landlords, Shlomo Franco.
“I was just visited by Calle 24. They basically said they will turn the community against me if I don’t give her access to the backyard. I’m kind of screwed and really have no choice. I’ll meet with her Monday and arrange shared times. I can’t fight this,” Norris wrote on April 9. “My business is really important, I’d rather share.”
Franco, however, texted back to “hold of [sic] on a meeting with her. Make a future date for like 2 weeks from now. Give me a little time to get our ducks in a row.”
It’s not clear if any future dates were made. Certainly, the situation hasn’t been resolved, despite an optimistic May text from Franco postulating that a solution was imminent. But, Norris says, Arguello and Mendoza kept asking him to give away what he did not own: to allow Rios use of the backyard despite provisions in his lease, a city permit allowing him to use it — and, of course, despite the express wishes of his landlord.
On June 6, T.R. Harrington, a friend of Norris’, says Mendoza approached them on the street and demanded a meeting regarding the backyard. Harrington says Mendoza stated, “You’re not allowed to use that. It’s not yours.” Afterward, Harrington was perplexed. Was this the landlord?
“Sirron said, ‘No, he’s the guy from a community organization.’ What?”
Norris says that on the scheduled date of a meeting at his studio, Mendoza didn’t show up. But the fire department did.
When I reached Arguello on the phone, he said that Calle 24 “is not ready to talk to the media. Maybe in a week or so. We’re dealing with the issue internally.” He did not answer questions regarding whether he and Mendoza represented Calle 24 in his dealings with Norris, or were just representing themselves.
Susana Rojas, who took over as Calle 24’s executive director in February, 2020, also said that there would be no media discussions at this time. “We’re trying to figure out what’s really going on.”
When I asked her if Arguello and Mendoza spoke for Calle 24 in their meetings with Norris, she responded, “part of what I am trying to figure out is if that meeting even happened.”
Fair enough. Rojas has asked for time to conduct her due diligence.
But Norris’ direct statements and contemporaneous written evidence give every indication that this meeting — and subsequent interactions — happened, as do the statements of corroborating witnesses like Harrington. Rios also told me that Arguello confirmed to her that he met with Norris.
So, we’re confident that Rojas’ investigation will determine that this meeting happened. And her response indicates that it was not sanctioned by her, the executive director of Calle 24. That would indicate this could well be a freelance operation.
So, that’s odd. But not nearly as odd as what came before. Because, really, where’s the beginning?
On July 9, 2020, Shlomo Franco and his family members — who own the subdivided building hosting both Rios and Norris that opens onto the contested backyard — filed suit against Rios.
And this is a strange and terrible lawsuit; it pushes this matter into soap opera territory.
In a nutshell, the landlords say that, after they attempted to increase Rios’ rent from $1,500 to $2,850 in December 2019, Rios came back with a different lease, dated 2010 and signed by the current landlords’ father, and locking in the prior low rent. But that’s not all: This lease “Gives Defendant sole and exclusive use of the common area backyard,” per the suit.
While Rios matter-of-factly expounded to me about her rights under her lease, which she says lasts “another seven years or so” and “will expire in 2027,” the landlords dispute the validity of this lease. They claim their father exceeded his authority to sign it, and, furthermore, claim they never received the $9,000 security deposit mentioned in this lease.
So, that’s soap opera territory. We don’t have an evil twin, exactly, but dueling leases will have to do. And this is the territory Norris also found himself in: inveighed upon to grant access not only to what he didn’t own, but what was being contested in court by other parties.
Rios tells me that she paid for a gardener to mind this backyard for 13 years. She may well have — but by the time former tenant Rory Cox of YuBalance Gym began landscaping it to install an outdoor workout area in 2018, it was a parched landscape of dry, dead grass, some cacti and trees, and a repository of rats, spiders and dog excrement.
San Francisco is an onerous town. But you do not need permits to landscape your backyard (unless you’re pouring 200 square feet or more of concrete, due to drainage issues). But you do need permits to open up an outdoor gym. YuBalance didn’t have them.
It decamped from the site last year, in part because of this situation. Norris, the successor tenant, does have permits, though. His Shared Spaces permit allows him to use the backyard until Dec. 31. The fire inspectors who determined the anonymous complaints made against him were meritless also investigated whether he was entitled to host children on-site. A Department of Social Services official wrote to them that “Sirron Norris Academy Animation’s Summer Camp is exempt from licensure due to operating less than 12 weeks during a 12-month period, even though the camp is operating more than 16 hours per week.”
As for the Department of Building Inspection complaint made against Norris’ site, DBI sources reviewed it at Mission Local’s behest. They described it as both strikingly broad and strikingly vague; a kitchen sink of building, electrical and — fittingly — plumbing complaints. “They got nothing on this guy,” a veteran inspector told us. This was interpreted as a potential fishing expedition: “It’s bullshit.”
Rios tells me her desire for backyard access is simple: She just wants some space for her autistic son to be able to blow off steam from time to time. While she speaks to me, he’s tucked away in the corner of the barbershop, engrossed in the laptop in front of him. Every day is Take your Kid To Work Day here.
Norris, meanwhile, tells me, “I would jump on that in a hot second. I am fine with that. I always was.” He has, in fact, re-upped on a one-year lease, and just desires “peace.” Not only is the Mission big enough for the both of them, so is the backyard.
On July 7, following Norris’ social media barrage, in which he tagged Calle 24, the organization put out an official statement. It denied engaging in “predatory behavior,” either “within or outside our community.” It also appeared to take a step back from the situation: “We cannot choose sides on personal issues among business owners. The issue at hand is of a personal and legal nature between two commercial tenants and a landlord in our Cultural district.”
So, this is a Mission story. An argument over a seemingly pedestrian issue is, in fact, a labyrinthine matter encompassing the pressing issues of our time; the warring parties, in fact, agree on an outcome — and yet, reaching that outcome has been so challenging.
We can’t, in a stroke, solve gentrification and displacement issues in the Mission. We can’t easily solve race or class issues or even come up with agreeable solutions for the ficus trees.
But we can solve this. It’s a backyard. Kids are involved. Everyone says they want the same thing. We can solve this. We should solve this. All of this may happen, more or less.
Hopefully more. And soon.