Resurrecting the Cross

3 June 2021 | Posted In: #139 Winter 2021,

Kings Cross is undergoing a metamorphosis, but yet to land in a place that rests easy with its history or provide a pathway forward for its future. A new report sets out a vision to revitalise the precinct. 

Alongside images of the Opera House and Bondi Beach, Kings Cross is one of the most internationally recognised places in Australia. Its eclectic history as a bohemian area, a red-light district, home to gangsters and cut throats, movie stars and artists, live music and theatres, dive bars and discos, has made it an intriguing place to live or to visit. For the past century it has built a reputation for being vibrant though also naughty, edgy, and gritty — delighting, and sometimes shocking, an often-conservative Sydney.

Few places in Australia have as rich a history as King Cross. Prior to white settlement the area was home to the Gadigal people who used the area as a meeting place and ceremony ground. White settlement saw the area quickly developed, first as a failed farm, then as home for much of the colonial establishment who built mansions along the ridgeline overlooking Sydney and the harbour. As Sydney grew, development along the ridge intensified, first as grand Victorian terraces, and then, from 1900 onwards, as federation and art-deco style apartment buildings.

Initially named Queen’s Cross, defined by the intersection of Victoria Street and Darlinghurst Road, the precinct was renamed Kings Cross in 1905 after King Edward VII and to prevent confusion with nearby Queens Square. By 1930, it was the most densely populated neighbourhood in Australia (a title it still holds). With the expansion of the nearby Garden Island naval port, the precinct became a playground for cashed-up sailors and soldiers on furlough.

First during WW2, and then during the Korean and Vietnam wars, the precinct became home to stylish eateries, theatres, burlesque dancers, dance halls and sex workers, as entrepreneurs tried every which way to relieve these servicemen of their dollars. This heady, anything-goes atmosphere soon attracted artists and writers, political and LGBT activists, and the sly grog trade. It became a gateway neighbourhood for new migrants offering affordable accommodation, easy employment, and a tolerant assimilation. And it became a playground for the rich and adventurous seeking a more risqué form of entertainment.

The economic stimulus generated by servicemen saw the Cross develop a thriving night-time economy and it became the place to go when the rest of Sydney closed down. The 1980s saw most of the sailors and soldiers leave, but by then the Cross had a life of its own. Its late-night bars and nightclubs attracted thousands of visitors from across Sydney and across the world. Every night, but especially on weekends, the Cross became a mass of over 20,000 people seeking to dance and drink the night away, and the local economy became increasingly based on alcohol.

Along with alcohol came drugs as well as crime — organised and disorganised. The combination of “destination drinking,” drugs and vice slowly changed the perception of the Cross. What was once seen as a “naughty-but-nice” place, was increasingly associated with late-night brawling, party buses, and gangs of stranded drunk people looking for a way home.

In the late 1990s, the NSW government implemented a number of reforms aimed at “cleaning up Kings Cross”, including the construction of a new high-profile police station and various other place management reforms, ultimately including the first medically supervised safe-injecting centre in Australia. (In 2005, Kings Cross joined Johannesburg as the only two places in the world to have the riot squad deployed as a matter of routine.)

Sydney’s tolerance of alcohol-fuelled violence eventually reached its limits and the NSW government responded with a series of regulatory reforms. Bars and nightclubs had their hours of operation limited, the type of alcohol they could serve and the music they could play proscribed. No new venues selling alcohol were permitted and patrons were restricted from moving around, as venues were required to ‘lock’ them out when they left.

The reforms saw many venues close down and Kings Cross’s night-time economy moved elsewhere. With its economic base — dining and alcohol — now curtailed, the precinct drifted. This decline was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic which forced an even harder lock-down on what little activity remained.

The main streets were struggling even before the COVID-19 lock-down. Years of negative press and the lock-out laws had given the Cross a tarnished reputation. Whether deserved or not, many Sydneysiders still don’t see the Cross as a nice place to visit. The servicemen are long gone, and the Sydney community has made it clear that few want the party buses to return. So how do we support economic revitalisation? How do we attract people to work in the Cross during the day or visit at night?

A precinct that sings

Live performance, in all its forms, could provide a means of attracting new visitors (and their wallets) to the Cross. Live performance — be it music, cabaret, theatre, drama, or comedy — is the mainstay of many urban precincts across the world, and for good reason. People going to a show or performance often stop at a bar or restaurant on their way and will stay for a late-night meal or drink when the show is over. More importantly, they are unlikely to drink to excess or engage in anti-social behaviour.

Here the Cross has a head start. It is home to several small-to-medium-sized theatres. The many struggling or boarded-up night clubs and adult entertainment venues in the area could also be given a new lease of life if they were repurposed as performance or music venues. If the Cross can develop a critical mass of venues, and across a range of sizes and formats, it could build a vibrant night-time economy servicing theatregoers. It could re-establish its reputation for multicultural food and build a network of ‘eat streets’. It could replace its old night-time economy, which was based on alcohol and destination drinking, with one based on destination eating and entertainment.

Reclaiming the street

The role of the street is too often overlooked in Sydney. In building our neighbourhoods we focus too much on land use, good architecture, and the design of buildings, rather than on the much more important places in between — the street. The street is where the real life of a city happens. Good high streets are people places and their use for cars and transport only ever a secondary consideration. Wherever possible, footpaths should be widened to allow more space for pedestrians and kerbside dining. Footpaths need to be clear of unnecessary clutter to allow more space for those critically important ingredients that make a good high street — trees, furniture, and seating.

Where Darlinghurst Road crosses William Street needs particular attention. The area is festooned with a multiplicity of traffic lanes travelling every which way, which makes the place particularly unpleasant for the pedestrian. The six lanes of traffic could be reduced to a single lane in each direction, reflecting the number of lanes to the north of the intersection, creating greater space for a pedestrian plaza, and reknitting north and south Darlinghurst Road back together. The resultant space can then host cultural, creative, and night-time activities, enticing people to traverse the currently hostile area. Fixing this intersection — the actual cross from which the Cross gets its name — is a must.

Darlinghurst Road isn’t the only street which needs attention. The side streets and laneways also need to be afforded a wider role then just for servicing local buildings, rat-running cars, and waste removal. These are places in their own right. Wherever possible, they should be activated with commercial and social activities including alfresco dining.

Dead-end lanes and cul-de-sacs should be extended with through-site links in new development. As much as is possible they should be pedestrianised to make them safer and more interesting. Wherever possible, sections of the kerbside lane should be turned into parklets or to provide more space for street trees. Council’s current policy of encouraging roof-top gardens and plantings is also strongly supported and new development should be incentivised to include green roofs and vertical gardens.

Lighting the way

In the 1950s, the Cross was famous for its neon signs, which lit the main streets and laneways with an array of colour and movement. The famous Coca Cola sign is just a small remnant of what was once a glistening neon boulevard. Last year, the NSW government released its 24-hour economy strategy, setting out an agenda to support night-time economic, social, and cultural activity across Sydney. The strategy is built on community sentiment that Sydney’s night-time experience has been getting worse over the years and a desire to diversify the offering away from alcohol-based activities.

It sets out a wide range of recommendations to improve our 24-hour economy, underpinned by the appointment of a “neon grid” across Sydney. The neon grid would be a network of 24-hour economy hubs that are activated, well-connected and promoted as a whole. Kings Cross, as Sydney’s historic night-time hub, should be the start of this grid. Setting a goal to have the precinct be the first location certified would shift the narrative for the precinct as a vibrant place, while providing confidence that a safe, diverse offering is available.

Improving connectivity

If the Cross is successful in building a more vibrant day and night-time economy, it needs to be better connected to the rest of the city. How people get to and from Kings Cross, how they move around once there, needs significant improvement and work. Several reports over recent years have called for the state government to run the eastern suburbs rail longer so visitors are not stranded. While extending the hours of operation of the railway is an important first step, fixing the amenity and experience of the Kings Cross station itself is the next.

This station is the principal gateway to the Cross. It’s how most residents and workers get to and from the precinct and it provides the all-important first impression for new visitors. Sadly, this 1970s underground bunker of a structure presents a poor-quality front door. While the station is what it is and won’t be rebuilt anytime soon, there are things we can do to improve its functionality and presentation. Better lighting and signage are a must, and the visitor experience could be improved with public art.

The Cross still has all the ingredients for making a great and vibrant place. It has a wonderful street network, intersected with interesting lanes and parks. It has great transport access with connections to the City Rail network, and easy access to the CBD. It has a rich and beautiful architecture. And it has a great and colourful history. In short, the Cross has great bones on which to build a great place and a great future.