SMH: It can never go back’: From red lights to red wine for Kings Cross

The end of the lockout laws signals a new chapter for what was once Australia’s most notorious party precinct.

It’s 10am on a sunny Thursday in Llankelly Place in Kings Cross and a yuppie in a business shirt and short shorts leans against a brown brick wall, vaping while waiting for his coffee.

At the next table, two sailors chat over their morning coffees. The area is filled with well-groomed people sporting AirPods and activewear.

At the same cafe, “Mr Potts Point” – a name smartly-dressed PR professional Carrington Brigham is playfully known as – is talking about how this once grimy backstreet, now flooded with commerce, embodies Kings Cross’ shift from red-light district to a burgeoning food and wine destination.

“When I moved here, I loved just how vibrant it was. It was exciting. It was something different, and you could really feel it was part of a global city,” Brigham says.

Large property owners and developers are now firmly entrenched as the kings of the Cross, displacing nightclub owners such as John Ibrahim.

The introduction of the lockout laws in early 2014 dealt a blow to the late-night party scene, and the COVID-19 restrictions have been a further nail in the coffin.

The Flamingo Lounge nightclub on Bayswater Road, one of the last in the area, has been open for only about three weeks since the pandemic began.

New South Wales Police Minister David Elliott has reassured the community Kings Cross will not return to the “bad old days” amid plans to scrap lockout laws for the area.

The capacity of nightclubs, bars and pubs at Kings Cross has halved to about 5000 patrons since early 2014, estimates Doug Grand, chief executive of the Kings Cross liquor accord, which represents the interests of venues in the area.

“It’s effectively gone,” Grand says of the nightclub scene.

“There was a lack of people coming into the area, so the atmosphere dropped off and people just found other areas to go to. It is time to move on.”

The end of the lockout laws in Kings Cross this week signals a further gentrification of the area – not a return to its wilder days.

“The strip’s as dead as a dodo,” says local historian and author Warren Fahey, who, along with Brigham, also heads up Potts Pointers, a 10,000-strong Facebook group championing a sense of community and newfound commercial vibrancy to parts of the area.

Many now refer to Kings Cross as Potts Point. Away from the downtrodden and forgotten strip of Darlinghurst Road, Potts Point has flourished in the intervening years.

“You can’t talk about Kings Cross any more; you have to talk about Potts Point. The make-up of the area is quite young compared to a lot of areas of Sydney,” Fahey says.

“They tend to go out a lot more and have more disposable incomes. The strength, the vitality of the restaurants, bars and cafes, and even the retail sector in Potts Point, is very resilient. The side streets are buzzing. Llankelly Place is chockas. Down Challis Avenue, down Victoria Street, down Bayswater Road … they’re all doing quite well.”

Fahey disagrees with those who regard “gentrification” as a “dirty word”.

“What we see it as is reinvention. Part of it is saluting the history of the area,” he says.

“But you can’t keep it in mothballs because frankly it wasn’t that fabulous. People see it as a people’s place. It’s more of a state of mind than anything.”

A member of the new guard is Justin Marmot, who, along with his wife Louka, runs the recently opened late-night licensed cafe, Dean’s Lounge.

Their Kellett Street venue sells comfort food as well as alcoholic drinks in a nostalgic tribute to the former Dean’s Cafe, where Mr Marmot worked at the height of the Cross’s heaving past.

“The Cross was a very different place back then. It was seedier. It was a red-light district … an amazing part of Sydney,” Marmot says.

The old Dean’s Cafe, its former premises next door to Marmot’s new eatery, represented a haven from the surrounding late-night chaos.

Marmot says that while his new venue is intended as a homage to the Dean’s of old, it is more relevant to where Sydney’s nightlife is heading in 2021.

“It’s something I feel that could be a good progression for what type of licensed venues the city could encourage,” he says.

While the area’s evolution has already begun, the one-time “golden mile” is a stagnating stretch of road with several empty shopfronts and an identity crisis.

‘The Cross was a very different place back then. It was seedier. It was a red light district … an amazing part of Sydney.’

Those who own property along Darlinghurst Road believe the future of the strip is residential, but are reluctant to invest in its upkeep or rejuvenation without any solid direction from the state government.

Aaron Senes, who owns properties on Darlinghurst Road, as well as Victoria and Kellett streets, says many buildings on the strip are “past their use-by date”.

“How do you bring back these old buildings that need to make modern-day requirements and be a viable option for landlords and businesses?” he asks.

“The approach has to come from the government and then filtered down to the landlords to start really investing in the properties and, and give us a viable option to recreate what has been such a famous area for so many different reasons.”

Senes says walking just metres from Darlinghurst Street in Kings Cross into Macleay Street in Potts Point is like crossing a border between countries.

“We knew what we were before lockout laws. We don’t really know what we are now, and we’ve been in that interim period for way too long,” he says of Kings Cross.

“It’s hard to know how to reinvest in a property at the moment. That might mean anything from repainting a shop or putting a DA in to do substantial works.”

Real estate agent and Darlinghurst Road property owner Vicki Laing envisions the future of Darlinghurst Road becoming residential “with some fantastic businesses downstairs”.

She also holds up the lively laneway of Llankelly Place as a paragon of what the area could become.

‘We knew what we were before lockout laws. We don’t really know what we are now, and we’ve been in that interim period for way too long.’

Property developer Theo Onisforou, who owns buildings along Macleay Street, says Darlinghurst Road is no longer viable as a commercial strip.

“All these buildings were developed at a time when the upstairs was less valuable than the downstairs. Now it’s been reversed,” he says.

At 20 years old, his daughter Stephanie Onisforou is at the age the Cross of old would have most appealed to in its heyday.

Yet as the co-owner of a French patisserie, Cafe de la Fontaine, which she is hoping will be soon licensed as a wine bar at night, she embraces what the area is likely to become.

“I couldn’t live anywhere else … and most of the people that I know that live here all say the same,” she says.

“But I think for us, you know, the area and the people within it really love not somewhere to go clubbing, but somewhere to go and have a cheese board or charcuterie board with a nice glass of French wine or champagne.”

Situated on the crook of the dog’s leg where Macleay Street and Darlinghurst Road meet, she is a bridge between the two detached precincts and believes she can help push the evolution further down the former “golden mile” into Kings Cross.

For some organisations, including the Kings Cross liquor accord, the new vision for the area does not include keeping the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre on Darlinghurst Road. The healthcare facility has helped people with drug dependencies for almost 20 years.

But the centre’s medical director, Marianne Jauncey, says her experience of the community is one that cares about diversity and collective well-being more than property prices.

“[The centre] has been able to really embody the view that everyone matters; that every life is important, and that there are people who will care for you and hold you up at times when you may not be able to do it yourself,” Jauncey says.

She says a vast array of clients still call the area home, alongside the “invisible success stories” of people who no longer need the service.

“It’s not an experiment I would like to conduct, but I would suggest that [if] for some reason we suddenly weren’t here for a month some people’s views might change,” she says.

Other organisations invested in the area’s future, including the City of Sydney, see the injecting centre as a vital part of the Cross’s fabric.

“Kings Cross has changed in recent years, but our commitment to vulnerable people has not. The centre should remain and continue its important work,” lord mayor Clover Moore says.

At the southern end of Kings Cross, Justine Baker, the chief executive of hospitality company Solotel, has navigated the hurdles of the past decade.

The Solotel-owned Kings Cross Hotel – opposite the landmark Coca-Cola billboard – experienced a dramatic fall in turnover and patrons in the immediate aftermath of the introduction of the lockout laws seven years ago.

In the past four years, the Kings Cross Hotel has had to shift its focus towards a local clientele.

Baker cites young people’s tendency nowadays to book venues, a trend accelerated by the COVID pandemic. It is a far cry from the years before the lockout laws when people tended to walk aimlessly in search of a pub or bar to visit.

Ridesharing also means that the problem of finding a way home during the change-over of taxis at 3am is a vestige of the past. The change-over period was notorious for alcohol-fuelled fights breaking out along the strip as people waited for cabs.

More optimistic than some, Baker is hopeful that a Kings Cross focused on live music and culture will emerge, drawing on its bohemian heritage in the early decades of last century.

However, she believes Kings Cross needs a theatre – something akin to the Enmore Theatre – or another large entertainment venue capable of hosting a wide array of acts.

Many are pinning their hopes on the resurrection of the mothballed Minerva Theatre at the end of Llankelly Place.

Baker says a large venue will help spur a mix of small and large businesses which can support economic activity 24 hours a day, and draw more people to the area.

“We need an anchor entertainment venue in Kings Cross. But that is really hard when there is no clear direction from government,” she says.

Like others, she is adamant that the Kings Cross of the years before the lockout laws will not return. “It can never go back – it is gone,” she says.

“Life has moved on enormously in the last seven years.”

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