The edifice at 5200 West Chicago Ave., the iconic former Laramie State Bank building at the corner of Laramie and Chicago, has undergone a multitude of uses. From its heyday as a bank, it became a furniture store and, the most recent usage, Chez Rue Banquet Hall. Because of a legal situation, the building’s occupancy was put into limbo. A structure that old could not stand that sort of situation. The once-beautiful interior because of a lack of heat and a flooding situation, was left in ruins. But the exterior of the building still stands. And that is most important.
I worked for John Young for a number of years. I helped run the banquet facility and bartended. Anybody who doesn’t know who John Young is, only has to look at the building ‘cuz John put his face out there. He comes from the era of those like Muhammad Ali: strong advocates for black people and strong advocates for loving oneself. And John clearly loves himself because he put a 20-foot picture of himself on the building.
There has been some discussion as to what should be done with that building. First and foremost, we need to make sure the building is saved. Another ugly strip mall is not what we need to see. Because in communities that are revitalized, like the Flat Iron Building, at North Avenue and Milwaukee in Wicker Park, or the Uptown Theater, it is vestiges of the past that help establish the future.
Ideas have floated around about what should become of that building. One is for it to again become a bank. The building has enough room to host a small bank. We need a bank here in Austin that represents the people who live here, a place where we can save our money, cash our checks, and have the stability that comes from a strong financial institution. But that would only be a small portion of the building. Because of ATMs and modern technology, people don’t utilize an entire building for banking anymore. So the rest of the building could again be a banquet hall as well as a cultural center, accomplishing a number of goals under one roof.
There’s enough room to bring to life a number of ideas. Being familiar with every square inch of that building, I would love to see an all-season room on the third floor roof that could be rented out. The second floor roof would be perfect to host a brunch restaurant. In the basement, there’s a small room that would be perfect to accommodate a poetry slam one evening, a comedy club the next, while allowing others to showcase their jazz and blues.
We need a success story in Austin that comes from the grassroots. Something we can all hold onto as our own. I’m willing to work on the idea, but I need others. So if you’re interested, email me at Westside2day@yahoo.com and let me know who you are. Please write “Saving 5200 – the John Young building” as your subject.