Famous the world over and synonymous with both crime and a good time, Kings Cross just ain’t the same anymore and probably never will be again, writes long-time resident Rudy Terwilliger.
As a young man in Sydney, many nights spent carousing with friends would finish here. I have lived in Potts Point (part of Kings Cross or not depending on who you talk to) for most of my adult life. I take coffee in places frequented by the wealthy, the famous, and the down and out. Until recently I could get a beer or a tasty morsel (healthy and not) at any time of the day. But my ‘hood is not well, and I think it is terminal.
Nobody knows exactly what the boundaries of Sydney’s Kings Cross are. But everybody knows where it is. It exists in the zeitgeist of not just Sydneysiders, or just Australians. It is known worldwide.
It is known for many reasons. And the reasons have shifted, changed, morphed and coalesced as the years have passed since the original construction of William St (the road leading up to the once iconic Coca Cola sign – sold off in pieces on EBay a couple of years ago) in the 1830s.
The original houses were mansions, a deliberate move by Governor Darling (for whom Darlinghurst, Kings Cross’s actual location, is named) to create a suburb for the elite.
The name itself underwent metamorphosis with the gender change brought about by one English monarch dying and being replaced by her son. It was the junction of Victoria St, Darlinghurst Rd and William St which was named as ‘Queens Cross’ in honour of Queen Victoria’s jubilee year in 1897. With the passing of Victoria and the coronation of Edward VII, it was renamed ‘Kings Cross’ in 1905.
Because of its proximity to Sydney City and the waterfront, Kings Cross underwent rapid subdivision and development from the 1840s onwards. It filled with terraces, townhouses and became a hub of boarding and lodging houses. By 2001, Kings Cross was the most densely populated place in Australia, with 20,000 people crammed into just 1.4 square kilometres.
The density of housing and availability of transient accommodation shaped the culture. Itinerant workers, sailors, migrants starting out, all took up the cheap temporary accommodation. As the demand grew the older buildings were demolished to make room for multi-level flats and developers cashed in. So the population just continued to grow, and by the 1920s the demand for food and entertainment from this burgeoning population saw the rapid opening of cafes, saloons, bars, theatres and a range of cuisine in line with its cosmopolitan inhabitants.
Hotels were built, and Kings Cross became the tourist accommodation hub for Sydney.
The cafes in Kings Cross attracted the bohemian set: the artists; the musicians; the writers; the actors, and they took up residency as well. With that shift, the demand came for butchers, bakers, grocers and delicatessens to service the eclectic tastes of the residents and now growing numbers of visitors.
At the same time the clubs began to open. So by the end of World War II, with tens thousands of Australian and US servicemen moving back and forth through Kings Cross, the drinking; gambling and revelling embedded itself into the culture of ‘The Cross’ (as it became and still is known).
It also brought organised crime. Where sly grog shops and brothels had long been a part, the strip clubs and illegal casinos followed. Cocaine took a hold. Gangsters took the opportunity and took charge. And it was the place to be. Celebrities, both Australian and from overseas flocked there. Tourists and Sydneysiders alike would go to The Cross just for a look-see.
Yet as with all ‘red light’ districts, there are casualties: the homeless; the waifs; the drug-addicted; prostitutes; all became part of the scene and remain so. The throngs of visitors would walk past them, even step over them as they made their way to the bars, restaurants, clubs and music venues.
By the 1960s Kings Cross had reached its heyday. Live music echoed in the streets from the clubs and bars. Transvestite revues became famous and, strangely for such a conservative country, widely accepted. Money, booze, drugs (by this time heroin and marijuana had followed servicemen back from Vietnam), prostitutes, cabarets, strippers, gambling, exotic cuisine. You name it, you could get it. Kings Cross was the place to be, and the place to be seen.
By the 1970s The Cross was such a remarkable place, the NSW Premier, Sir Robert Askin, and his loyal Police Commissioner, could be seen in the illegal casinos owned by organised criminals, happily gambling the night away. And nobody batted an eyelid.
But a journalist, questioning the property deals in the area, might also suddenly disappear without trace. Juanita Neilsen was an heiress, conservationist, activist, journalist and publisher. Her anti-development and anti-corruption stance was the probable cause for her demise, in 1975, at the hands of persons unknown.
Kings Cross was exciting, but it was also dangerous.
The bohemian atmosphere in The Cross took a fatal blow in the 1980s. The music venues, legendary like The Manzil Room, began to close when the NSW Government allowed poker machines to be installed in pubs. The Cross became a seedier, less vibrant place as a result over time.
Today, Kings Cross is in decline, and it is rapid, and likely fatal.
The strip clubs are closed, the bars are few, the restaurants are diminished, and delicatessens, butchers and bakeries are almost gone. Woolworths and Coles bookend the main drag, where empty business places display a growing number of ‘for lease’ signs. The tired buildings lining Macleay St and Darlinghurst Rd, the fabled ‘Golden Mile’, seem to lose a business every month, empty windows and fading advertising becoming the vista as less and less people pass by.
No more Pink Pussycat, or Porky’s, or Texas Tavern. And the self proclaimed “world famous” Love Machine is a goner too. The iconic Bourbon & Beefsteak, famous worldwide – closing in 2010 and then remodeled unrecognisably – was perhaps the harbinger of doom for Kings Cross.
But the axe fell when Barry O’Farrell’s NSW Government introduced Sydney’s infamous ‘lockout laws’ in 2014.
The legislation requiring 1.30 am lockouts and 3am last drinks, effectively killed off the atmosphere of Kings Cross, a place where the party never really got started before 11pm.
The businesses in the City and Kings Cross which have suffered since, must be still wondering how The Star Casino, well within the boundaries of Sydney City and with multiple liquor licenses, managed to get itself an exemption.
The homeless still litter the footpaths. Many of the sex workers are now ice-riddled zombies. But the glitz, the glamour, the verve, flare and excitement of this once vibrant place is all but extinguished.
The death knell has been sounded. Opposite the Kings Cross fountain (actually the El Alamein Memorial Fountain and heritage-listed) lies perhaps the last bastion of what once was. The famous Andersen’s of Denmark Ice Cream shop has posted notices informing its clientele that time is up.
And time for Kings Cross as Sydney’s hub of excitement, entertainment, adventure and thriving business is almost certainly up as well.