From BoHo to PoHo
Plaques and decay. Can Kings Cross survive a $30 million facelift?
“Enjoy Coca-Cola.” The massive red-and-white command flashes from the top of William Street and over the three-way intersection where William meets Darlinghurst Road meets Victoria Street, the “cross” of Kings Cross. The Coke sign is a landmark, the eternal light of the Cross’s night. But there has always been more to enjoy in Kings Cross than soft drink. Besides, it’s the kind of place that prefers offers to orders. Wanna lady? Wanna get on? Smoke-o? Name your vice, they’ll name the price. Wanna get on?
There’s something inescapably romantic about the idea of the Cross, that dirty half mile of Darlinghurst Road plus the suburbs of Potts Point, Elizabeth Bay, Rushcutters Bay, Darlinghurst and Woolloomooloo which fall away from its ridge. The Cross is a dream of poets and drunks and trannies, of a long night that winds up at Baron’s, the decades-old lounge bar where you can order a backgammon board along with your whisky at 3 a.m. It’s an acoustic weave of jazz and rock and dance music and just plain noise, the beat of the street. It’s a pagan seduction, a snake dance, a striptease. It’s a little bit of the world in a small patch of Oz, our very own Montmartre, Soho or East Village, a raffish haven for oddballs and refugees from suburbia and World War II and beyond. It’s the “gorgeous bedlam” of the 1940s drag scene that Jon Rose describes in his memoir At the Cross. It’s Italian cafes, Sudanese fruiterers, Chinese masseurs, Greek spruikers, Swedish backpackers and Arabs managing convenience stores. It’s the morning breath of stale smoke, spilt beer and worse, exhaled by the strip clubs and blown away by the sea breeze. It’s the old sign in the Piccolo Bar: “Smoking and free thinking strongly encouraged here.” It is, as locals Louis Nowra and Mandy Sayer have written, “both a real place and a state of mind”. Forget Coca-Cola. Just enjoy.
But look. A new imperative is waving its freshly scrubbed and manicured hand for attention: “Rediscover the Cross.” The City of Sydney wants you to know that Kings Cross is “seductive in more ways than one”. It has freshened up the old tart with a $30 million nip and tuck, widening its pavements, planting more trees, improving the lighting. There’s a new library and Neighbourhood Services Centre. The council now publishes a brochure that features “your guide map to untold pleasures” and leaves off the unspeakable ones. Dancers – “Sydney’s most sensational and luxurious continuous table-dancing club” – is on the map. The no-lesscontinuous Love Machine, Stripperama and Playbirds International, more typical of the strip in both senses of the word, are not. The guide lists new shops selling must-have designer homewares: at Macleay on Manning (stock chosen with a “unique eye and great taste”) my jaw drops over a stunning $1,660 lychee leather-top desk. It neglects to mention the dozen or so establishments catering to more corporal lusts, such as Club X Adult Centres or Pleasure Chest, where inscribed on the doorjamb are the promises: “1000s of videos … private viewing … backroom cruise area.”
Sleaze, nowadays, is celebrated only when it’s historical. You can’t stumble more than a few metres on Darlinghurst Road without catching a stiletto on a newly laid bronze plaque honouring some player in the Cross’s colourful history. ‘Carlotta’, a sex-change pioneer who worked at Les Girls until 1992, shares her patch of Darlinghurst Road with Juanita Neilson, an heiress who fought to preserve the area’s heritage housing until, one day in 1975, she entered the Carousel Club for a meeting with the pro-development Mob “and was never seen again. Believed murdered.”
On a nearby corner plaques document how people abused the painter William Dobell, who flatted upstairs, following him down the street and spitting at him for winning the Archibald Prize with a portrait they thought mere “caricature”. Across the street is a testament to good-time girl Dulcie Deamer – “actor, journalist and full-time bohemian” – who finally quit belly-dancing at parties when she had a heart attack at 73. You can read about Dr Jim Eakin, “the gun doc” who didn’t ask his patients any awkward questions; and about how Jewish refugee Walter Magnus, unable to practise dentistry when he arrived in Australia, opened a restaurant in 1938 “introducing goulash and schnitzel to the local cuisine”.
I was taking notes on Dobell’s tribulations when author Peter Robb (Midnight in Sicily, M, Death in Brazil) strolled up. Robb lives in the Cross too. “I hate those plaques,” he told me. “They’re like gravestones.” Fellow novelist and Crossite Delia Falconer had previously informed me she hates them too, “with a vengeance”, and she used the g-word as well. As Robb said: “They make it seem like it’s all over.”
Yet the history of the Cross, like that of Dancers, is nothing if not continuous. Not far from the plaque marking Battleship Corner, where we learn local professionals hooked up with American sailors on leave in World War II, local professionals today hook up with anybody. Pavement memorials celebrate artists and writers who once lived in the Cross, like Dobell, and the poets Christopher Brennan and Kenneth Slessor – but it ain’t over yet. Alongside Robb, Falconer, Nowra and Sayer, other contemporary Crossdwellers include writer Murray Bail, painter Aida Tomescu, writer and performer Noel Tovey, musos like Jeff Duff and David McCormack, actor Bille Brown. I’ve spied Hugo Weaving and David Wenham at local cafes.
In Rebellion Cabaret, her recent show at the Sydney Opera House, American performance artist Penny Arcade declared Kings Cross “the last intact bohemia in the world”. Arcade, a former Andy Warhol superstar, lived here for two years on and off in the mid-1990s. She related a cautionary tale. Once upon a time artists, freaks, queers, deros and other misfits happily co-existed in Manhattan, as they still do in the Cross. Then along came the bourgeois bohemians, the “bobos”, misquoting the Beats, doing PhDs in performance art and mistaking Starbucks for the kind of cafe a poet might sit in. They cleaned up the streets and pushed up the rents, driving the real bohos out of town. “The concept of bourgeois bohemians completely misses the point,” Arcade said. “Bourgeois and bohemian are two entirely separate value systems.”
Tell that to the council.
Where the Black Marias clatter,
And peculiar ladies nod,
And the flats are rather flatter,
And the lodgers rather odd …
Hardly daring to look around her, yet fearful of what might befall her if she didn’t, my friend “Sylvia” sprinted on to Darlinghurst Road from Kings Cross Station and bounded towards Elizabeth Bay as fast as her legs would carry her. Sylvia, a university student in her early twenties who lives in Sydney’s western suburbs, knows only this about the Cross: it’s a bad place. Sylvia and I usually meet while visiting asylum seekers at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre: a truly bad, bad place. But on this day Sylvia needed to drop something off at my house. She was terrified.
Where the night is full of dangers,
And the darkness full of fear,
And eleven hundred strangers,
Live on aspirin and beer.
I imagined Sylvia’s shoes slapping the rhythm of Kenneth Slessor’s poetry onto the pavement as she ran. It was broad daylight, yet in her mind the Cross cast a long shadow. In the Cross, “everybody is wicked”. Donald Friend, the painter, said so six decades ago. Sylvia was drenched in sweat when she finally flung herself on my doorstep, panting with relief. She could scarcely credit that she’d made it alive. A month or so later Sylvia wanted to see a play I’d written on the theme of detention. There was one problem: it was being staged at the Old Fitzroy Hotel in Woolloomooloo. No way would she take the train to the Cross at night.
“Maybe I can borrow a car,” she mused. “Will I find a place to park close to the theatre?” I could hear Patrick White whispering in her ear: “that nihilistic darkness”.
“No worries,” I deadpanned. “They steal cars so fast in Woolloomooloo there’s always spaces coming up.” Unfortunately she believed me and stayed home. All that month the papers were bloody with reports of drive-by shootings, sexual assaults and violent crime – in Sylvia’s suburb of Fairfield.
At different periods in its history the Cross has lived up to its bad name. In the 1920s rival brothel owners, drug runners and underworld queens Tilly Devine and Kate Reilly enacted such bloody vendettas against one another that Kellett Street literally ran with blood, prompting headlines of “Razorhurst”, “Gunhurst”, “Bottlehurst”, “Dopehurst”. The Kellett Street riot was sparked by a brawl over the Cross’s most famous prostitute, beautiful Nellie Cameron, who arrived in the Cross from Sydney’s swishier North Shore at 14, and who once admitted she chose gangsters for lovers “so that you can wake up in the morning and look at someone lower than yourself ”.
In some ways not much had changed six decades later when John Birmingham, on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, spent a few weeks living rough in the Cross. In Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney, he relates stories of a 13-year-old smack addict slapped around by her 15-year-old pimp, of strung-out user-dealers and a homeless man who was “quite good company when he wasn’t suffering from some sort of psychotic episode”. The stayers, Birmingham wrote, had “cut some sort of Faustian deal to survive on the edge of the abyss. The younger faces … just disappeared or grew so old so fast it was like watching a special effects movie.”
That’s life in the Cross. This is also life in the Cross: shopkeepers and waiters and banktellers who greet you by name. Grassy harbourside parks where you can jog and walk and throw down a blanket for a picnic. Trees hanging with possums who’ll come down at the whiff of a banana. A chronically cheerful postie who is always having a “terrific” day and hopes you are too. A communal garden. Small but perfectly formed bookshops, temptation bakeries, great little theatres and art galleries.
Sylvia ran so quickly she didn’t notice the sign advertising a flat in a new building for $3.5 million.
Our knocked-about 1984 Tarago van has twice been stolen from in front of our block of flats. Both times the cops found it after a few days. People come in from the burbs. They get drunk. They spend all their money on drugs. They need a way to get home and can’t afford a taxi. The first lot of thieves took my partner’s bicycle and left two needles; the second lot stole the battery and left a golf ball, a golf tee and one golf glove. After the second time we installed an immobiliser. You can still break into it with a post-box key but you won’t get it started, much less get it to the golf course.
According to the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, motor vehicle thefts in the Kings Cross area have actually decreased in recent years and robbery is in recession. The numbers still added up, in 2004, to 325 auto thefts, 153 unarmed robberies, 58 armed robberies, 265 break-and-enters into homes and 943 assaults. About a month after I teased my friend about parking by the Old Fitz, a friend had her purse snatched while walking home from there. Another mate who lives in the area has been mugged three times.
Crims, gangs, lowlife and their control over drugs have always been a feature of the Cross. And that’s just the police; sorry Officer, was the police. The 1997 royal commission conducted by Justice James Wood showed how closely police corruption was related to efforts to enforce impossible-to enforce drug laws. Police got kickbacks for ignoring the existence of illegal heroin shooting galleries. The Wood Commission led to the establishment of legal injecting rooms where addicts got a cleaner and safer environment in which to shoot up, along with professional counselling if they wanted it. Bad cops lost a good little earner. Before the safe injecting rooms opened their doors I often saw people shooting up in the open. Once I found a guy OD’d in the gutter, legs stretched out into the street like a speed bump. Another passer-by helped me drag him onto the pavement. We were waiting for the ambos when one of the junkie’s mates came running over.
“O Johnno,” he cried, shaking his head. He bent over his unconscious friend and patted his cheek. “Whatdja do to yerself this time, mate?” Then, so quickly we didn’t have time to react, he robbed him and fled.
Some of the new residents of the Cross, having bought their million-dollar flats, do not like the safe injecting rooms. They don’t like the hookers either. Property values and all that. If the new shop selling exquisite Italian notebooks which cost more than you could earn for the stories you wrote in them and the cafe serving poached eggs on a bed of polenta for breakfast are the upside of gentrification, then this is the down. These newcomers need to learn that in the Cross two communities – one rough, one gentle – co-exist. That’s how it is, and how it’s always been.
Tilly Devine, Queen of Vice, used to host annual Christmas parties with a present for every poor kid in the Cross. Today Randall ‘Animal’ Nelson, the leather-jacketed, grey-bearded founder of the hairy, hoary Kings Cross Bikers, who park their motorcycles outside the Illustrated Man tattoo shop, is the hood’s leading street philanthropist. He conducts an annual Christmas toy run and has done so much to help homeless children, the underprivileged, the aged and the invalid that last year Animal became Animal, OAM.
If the Cross can feel like a village, it’s a village the size of a small town. It’s the most densely populated area in Australia, although nearby Surry Hills is catching up. More than 20,000 people are stacked onto less than two square kilometres. Compared with the rest of Sydney a high proportion live in flats, renting rather than owning, and living on their own. You’ll find more people with degrees and fewer on their way to church on a Sunday morning. You’ll find the wealthy, the homeless and everyone in between: boho, bobo, junkie ho, up-and-about, down-and-out, Aboriginal and European, gin-blossomed and fresh as the $200 bouquets in the posh new flower shop, the PoHo. “You get the whole experience of life when you walk out the door,” actor Nell Schofield said in a recent interview. “Life in all its feral glory.” Schofield squatted in the Cross 20 years ago with director Baz Luhrmann.
But that sign for the $3.5 million flat scares me. It scares me because reasonable rents and cheap digs are becoming as rare around here as a two-buck coffee. The old hotels that contributed so much to the character of the place have come tumbling down and gleaming new blocks of flats have risen in their places, bringing in gleaming new residents, some of whom, not content merely to “rediscover” the Cross, wish to reinvent it. Feral glory is not a phrase in their vocabulary.
In the history of Sydney’s real estate no centre has been more rapid in transformation and in rise of values than Kings Cross, Darlinghurst, extending to Elizabeth Bay. The interchange of properties has recorded figures that have bewildered many experienced speculators in real estate.
The figures may bewilder speculators; they send those of us who’d like to own our own home someday into anaphylactic shock. A quarter of a million dollars for a dreary studio is a bargain. Add designer features and you’re looking at half a mil. In March this year Boomerang, the Hollywood-style Elizabeth Bay villa which dates back to the 1920s, was sold to its tenth owner for $21 million.
The “bewildered experienced speculators” referred to above come from a 1927 sales brochure for the Cross’s other most famous mansion – the neo-classical Elizabeth Bay House. The man who built it, Alexander Macleay, arrived in Australia in 1826 to take up the post of NSW colonial secretary and was granted a generous 54 acres of absolute waterfront by his mate, Governor Ralph Darling. In Governor Macquarie’s day, a decade or two earlier, there had been moves to establish a reserve in Elizabeth Bay for the Cadigal people. But the traditional owners were never seriously part of the real estate equation. Nor was an appreciation of the traditional landscape – “a mass of cold and hopeless sterility”, according to an 1831 edition of the Sydney Gazette.
Much to the Gazette’s delight, Macleay threw himself into taming that landscape, adding exotics and building wee bridges and terraces and grottoes. You can still find some of Macleay’s little follies tucked behind apartment buildings on Billyard Avenue. He hired the trendiest architect of the day, John Verge, to work on the house itself, but Macleay couldn’t resist diverting funds meant for the house into his beloved gardens. When he lost his job in 1837, thanks to a falling out with Darling’s successor, the house still wasn’t finished. The Macleays had to sell off some of the grounds to finance its completion. Each heir to the estate sub-divided it that little bit more until 1882, when only three acres remained. In 1911 a leather merchant, George Michaelis, bought the villa for 8,000 pounds. He sold it 15 years later for 40,000, and that buyer turned around and resold it for 60,000.
The new owner, a developer, divided the house into flats. But few sold, and in the late 1920s a colourful rogues’ gallery of artists squatted and lived there rent-free for nearly a decade. In 1935 new managers turfed the artists and refurbished the place as a fashionable centre for weddings and other receptions. It became a hub of Sydney glam. Five years later it reverted to flats. Donald Friend lived there during World War II and had, his sister later recorded, a “wonderful view” from his balcony of the Japanese shelling of Sydney Harbour. In 1959 the house was named an historic building and employees of the State Planning Authority interpreted this as permission to move in themselves. The last of the bureaucrat-tenants were shoehorned out in 1974, and Elizabeth Bay House opened to the public in 1977 as a museum under the Historic Houses Trust.
Every incarnation of Elizabeth Bay House is the real Elizabeth Bay House. Every incarnation of the Cross is the real Cross.
O Woolloomoolethal no longer!
O Woolloomoolewd never more …
We’ll be Woolloomoolucrative lodgers
In Woolloomooluxury vast …
A.G. Stephens penned his satirical poem about the “cleaning up” of Woolloomooloo in 1905. The Bulletin could easily have published it again during the hand-wringing that accompanied the flurry of renovation a few years back when the old wharf was turned into the nouveau W – a hotel, bar, restaurants and pied-à-terre for Russell Crowe.
The history of the Cross has long been one of decay and renewal, decadence and reinvention. Every generation mourns the passing of something which it identifies as the Cross. The old Macleay Street Sheraton, which has since made way for serviced apartments, used to house the Famous Beatles Bar and Restaurant. The Beatles had hung out there in 1964 when they played at the old Sydney Stadium Bay (originally a boxing ring and itself long gone) in Rushcutters Bay. The Beatles Bar featured framed and autographed photos of the Fab Four and a jukebox full of Beatles songs you could play for free during happy hour. I once went to a birthday party there for a gay friend. Asked what gift his partner had given him, he unzipped his trousers and showed us the latest gold ring in the family jewels. The bartender didn’t bat an eye. He’d seen worse – or better. There’s no watering hole quite as quirky, that I know of anyway, in the slick new buildings rising around the Cross. “Perhaps something a little too calculating, a little too prudent, a little too commercial has corroded the joie de vivre” – Kenneth Slessor again, speaking of the sixties.
For a younger generation making their own legends over absinthe cocktails in the newish Peppermint Lounge, dancing the night away at Club B over the renovated Bourbon and Beefsteak, or watching the sun come up from the last remnant of Alexander Macleay’s gardens, the demise of the Beatles Bar is an irrelevance. The Beatles themselves may even be an irrelevance. It’s ironic that those of us who consider ourselves progressive should find ourselves conservative when it comes to preserving our bohemian dreams.
In December last year the council staged an official “Rediscover the Cross” celebration. For two days they turned Darlinghurst Road and the top of Macleay Street into a pedestrian mall with food stalls. The bars spilled their tables onto the street. That Saturday night I sat at the Fountain Cafe, watching some innocuous performance on the temporary stage by the Alamein Fountain. Off stage, things were more interesting. An Islander trannie in a blue-andwhite striped frock minced by, little white purse swinging off meaty brown arm. A shifty-eyed fellow with the undernourished body of the professional junkie snaked along the back of the crowd, eyes at wallet level. A tour group of grey-suited mainland Chinese trooped by, eyes popping: they’d just seen the trannie. Suddenly about 20 cops poured out of the police station, parting the crowd like a comb. Ten minutes later they returned, sandwiching two angry little white men who’d been in a brawl up the street. One of the captives struggled and a cop gave him a boot up the arse. People laughed and hooted.
As Penny Arcade said: “You can only widen the footpaths in the Cross so much.”