At a Tipping Point: Workers like me feel the pain from San Antonio's lagging construction projects

For individuals who work at bars and restaurants, the glacial pace of construction projects isn't just toxic to San Antonio's cultural lifeblood but our livelihoods.

click to enlarge Many people working up and down the St. Mary's Strip are facing financial uncertainty. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
Many people working up and down the St. Mary's Strip are facing financial uncertainty.

The never-ending construction project on the St. Mary's Strip is hurting more than just the bottom lines of small businesses.

For individuals who work at those bars and restaurants — door people, security, bartenders, sound engineers — the glacial pace of the work isn't just toxic to San Antonio's cultural lifeblood but our livelihoods. We're collateral damage.

I started working St. Mary's Strip music venue the Paper Tiger in June 2021, a month after construction started. Around that time, it looked like the area was on the rebound from the pandemic. As a doorgirl-turned-bartender in what's become one of my favorite jobs, I noticed crowds build and dwindle. I have experienced big nights and achingly slow ones — and those slow ones are a hit to my finances.

As with many involved in the hospitality industry, my earnings as a bartender depend on whims. They're determined by how many people decide to show up. That, in turn, is governed by factors such as the weather, the day of the week and, of course, how difficult construction makes it for them.

Since tips make up most of a bartender's livelihood, it's not a job with a stable week-to-week income. In part, I bartend because it gives me the freedom to pursue personal dreams and goals. When the money's good, that is.

But there's no guarantee the money will be good, and lately, with the street and sidewalks difficult to navigate without breaking an ankle, the money's been dwindling.

click to enlarge The ongoing construction along N. St. Mary's St. strip is hurting more than just the bottom lines of small businesses. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
The ongoing construction along N. St. Mary's St. strip is hurting more than just the bottom lines of small businesses.

During a free Saturday show with vendors in the venue's courtyard, I was the only one bartending. Even so, it was so sparsely attended that I left with around $50 in my pocket. Pre-construction, the show probably would have pulled 200 to 300 guests.

Some nights, especially if a show undersells, I get sent home early. That happened with an indie-pop show not too long ago. Lately, though, the norm is just being scheduled less. With fewer bands touring in the winter and fewer patrons wanting to brave the construction mess, I'm usually just getting called in once or twice a week.

Consecutive slow nights lead to financial instability or having to put more hours into a side hustle that eats into my time for creative projects. The unreliability doesn't help me make financial plans either. I'm sure many of us working up and down the Strip are facing similar uncertainty.

As we wait for workers to complete the construction and for the city to compensate affected businesses, it's worth reminding people that places enduring months of construction offer local food, culture and music worth navigating around construction cones. And that they support the lives and ambitions of people like me.

Just don't break an ankle stumbling through the rubble.

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