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The orange jackets of spring
Torchy's Tacos on Guadalupe was still hiring. (Mark Dewey)

Mark Dewey

We went to an allergy clinic on West 34th Street Monday, and that provided an excuse for driving downtown to witness the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. We had cabin fever, not treatable by injection, and this was an excuse to get out of the house and explore downtown Austin.

Supercuts, Antone's Records and AT&T on Guadalupe Street were already shut down, and Torchy's Tacos and some other restaurants were serving only from to-go windows. The sign at Domino's Pizza proclaimed "Business is Booming, We are Hiring." Austin's flower-child of a grocery store, Wheatsville Food Co-Op, sympathetically advertised, "We are here for you."


The front yard of the Zeta Psi house was strewn with a collapsed kicker net, hammock, yard chairs and a Whataburger cup. Clearly, the Zetes fled town on an endless spring break for warm beaches. On 6th Street, the bars and shops were boarded up, and on Congress Avenue—believe it or not—Austin's parking problem had been miraculously solved.

One could draw bleak conclusions. It looked like no more than 40% of the usual number of workers were downtown. This is worse than Austin's empty-buildings phase of the 1980s, when overbuilding matched high unemployment.

But hold on. It gradually occurred to us that Austin's streets and side lots were filled with construction workers, men wearing orange safety jackets (orange contrasts better than other colors with the construction environment) and yellow helmets.

As the lunch hour approached, they were at Torchy's, the 7-Eleven and other take-outs. The construction sites were all over: West Campus, east of the Capitol, around the old Brackenridge Hospital on Red River, along Congress, at Barton Springs Road and South 1st Street. There was a time when I arrived here as a newspaper editor in 1995 when I could identify every building under construction that was four or more stories high. Today, not a chance. I saw 20-story buildings and had no idea what they were to become.

As we passed over the Ann Richards Bridge, the clouds parted and revealed the sun. On our left was the American-Statesman printing plant and office building, destined for imminent destruction. After the Statesman's shrunken staff moves into leased quarters, the site will be cleared for more office and condo towers. More construction, on a huge scale.

Austin is bursting with growth. Maybe, you say, developers just haven't had time to react to the seriousness of the pandemic and the recession that is unfolding before us. Maybe. But I don't think so. I think they are looking at Austin's long-term prospects.

And we should be too. We'll come out of this, if we take it seriously and stay safe.

As we drove west toward home on Barton Springs Road, we passed under the ancient oaks near the Palmer Events Center. Those old ladies had donned start-of-spring finery, high capes of small, chartreuse leaves that created a magical feel as we passed under them.

Across the neighborhoods of Austin, leaves and lawns are getting greener. It hit 90 degrees this week. Our world is awakening to spring.

Coronavirus? This too shall pass. Please be safe.

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