As recent news stories have reported, there are problems near the St. Mary’s Strip. Apart from never-ending construction, the city might initiate a pilot parking program as a response to complaints about Strip businesses and the challenges they bring. It would bar non-residents from parking on public streets along St. Mary’s between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. In effect, the program would close off the great majority of parking to the people who work on and visit the Strip for their livelihoods and enjoyment.
I live in the area and empathize with both sides. I was on the Tobin Hill Community Association board through 2021. In that position, I became familiar with the perspectives of both residents and business owners. I continue to talk to residents during my daily dog walks. Everything I’ve heard and witnessed convinces me that their concerns are real and serious.
I moved to Tobin Hill nearly 15 years ago because I love the Strip and wanted it within walking distance. I’ve had incredible nights at the long-gone Limelight and the still-there Hi-Tones. I frequent Joey’s and think Paper Tiger is the best thing to happen to San Antonio since the 2014 Spurs championship.
What many newer Tobin Hill residents don’t understand is how precious the Strip is to all of San Antonio. It’s been the heart of our music and nightlife scenes since the 1980s. It’s essential to our creative community, and it’s one of our best hopes for keeping —and attracting — ambitious young people looking for urban, culturally rich experiences.
In the last few years, though, life has gotten rougher for those of us living near the Strip.
I’m a Chicago native, so I’m used to people parking in front of my house. I agree with the idea that Tobin Hill’s streets belong to everyone, not just residents — and believe all central-city dwellers should feel the same. But what some might not understand is that the problems go much deeper than cars in front of our homes.
One serious issue is residents’ inability to leave their homes on weekend nights. On the narrowest roads, some people are blocked in by cars parked in front of their houses and clogging their streets. The police often can’t or won’t have the vehicles towed. It’s sometimes too tight for ambulances and firetrucks to enter. Absolutely no one in San Antonio should be out of reach of lifesaving care.
I’ve heard outsiders laugh when residents voice concerns about the gunshots they hear nearly every weekend. To us, the increase in gunshots is undeniable. Only recently did I begin finding bullet casings on our streets and sidewalks. This year, someone a block away from me found a bullet hole in their bedroom window. I used to call the police when I heard shots, usually between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., but I eventually stopped. Most of us did. Consequently, gun violence here is underreported.
There’s an impression among people opposed to the pilot parking program that the only ones complaining about the Strip are newcomers. That’s not true. I’ve heard many older families — some who were here before there were any clubs on the Strip — share their troubles. On my block, nearly everyone is Latino, working and middle class, and a long-time resident. I knew things were getting bad when a handful of people close to Midnight Swim sold their homes because they couldn’t stand living there anymore. Some had been my neighbors for many years, and none wanted to live in an exclusive bourgeois fantasyland.
One resident got so sick of fights spilling into his yard that he told me he was going to sit on his porch with a BB gun so he could scare off the troublemakers. Thankfully, his wife convinced him it was too dangerous. He ended up selling his house even though he’d been living there for almost two decades. He was a middle-aged Latino skateboarder, not an uptight Anglo hedge-fund manager from California.
The noise problem is also real. No one who moves here should expect to sleep with open windows and no white-noise machine, but some clubs began playing music outside that was so loud and with so much bass that people’s houses shook. No matter what they did, they couldn’t sleep. That “low end” can’t be measured as a decibel, which is why many residents called for a new noise ordinance. These people had never complained about the White Rabbit, but when they gave up on getting the new problem solved, they decided their only choice was selling their homes.
Trash, too, is a major problem. We do find bullets, but they’re rarer than the liquor bottles and beer cans people throw out of their cars after they’re done prepping for the clubs. The plates from late-night food trucks also litter our yards. I’ve found syringes, used condoms, and drug baggies, usually empty but not always. Even with our substantial homeless population — many with addictions— this didn’t use to happen.
There are two other common complaints: “lewd acts” and property damage. I’ve seen the videos my neighbors have made. They show people urinating, defecating, and having sex in front of homes. Perhaps more seriously, drunken drivers have run into residents’ cars and sped away. Other neighbors have had their houses damaged by rowdy partiers. These acts almost always occur just after 2 a.m.
So what can be done? Despite the problems, I don’t support the pilot parking program. Taking away so much parking in a spread-out city with poor public transportation would lead to devastating drops in revenue for bars and venues. Thousands of San Antonians, including myself, don’t want the businesses to close.
The proposed parking program would likely move many problems a few blocks away to other residents. A few garages might help, but they won’t hold everyone, and most visitors don’t want to be shuttled back and forth from distant lots. Some see rideshare as a panacea, but I doubt there are enough drivers to handle the Strip’s 2 a.m. surge. With peak pricing and people coming from the city’s far corners, rideshare would also be too expensive for many San Antonians.
Some have proposed limiting resident-only parking to one side of the streets. I think it’s an idea worth trying. I also believe goodwill gestures from businesses would help. This year, most did make changes: higher drink prices, earlier last calls, and no 18+ events. Some businesses are even cleaning streets on weekend mornings. Perhaps they could do it more thoroughly and frequently.
Business owners could also do more when it comes to problematic employees. I’ve heard from more than one resident that when an owner is present at a business and a neighbor asks them to lower the music volume, they do it. But when the owner isn’t there, employees do what they want. Some owners are wonderful people, but no one wants to call them every weekend at 1 a.m. We’re even less eager to walk into sometimes-hostile clubs for late-night “chats.”
I have no idea how to stop the gunshots. If bullets have already hit our cars and homes, it’s only a matter of time before someone dies. Businesses have said they’re hiring off-duty cops to patrol the Strip, but there are legal and logistical challenges. I suppose constant police presence might be the only thing that could make a difference; hopefully, the new station on North St. Mary’s will help. Still, I don’t think we should get all the resources when gun violence is as bad or worse in more marginalized neighborhoods. City statistics show that the problem has increased over the last three years in areas away from North St. Mary’s just as much if not more than it has along the Strip.
There are no easy solutions to the Strip’s problems, but I hope creative minds will meet the challenge. If they don’t, residents will continue to complain to elected representatives, who will be forced to act in ways that might destroy the Strip that so many San Antonians love.
I’ve seen the conspiracy theories on social media. But none of my neighbors want walls of new condominiums or blocks filled with nothing but Airbnbs. Many of us have been fighting that kind of development for years. We simply want a bit more peace and safety. I think we deserve it.