Kings Cross Sydney "as we knew it"

Kings Cross – Sydney’s historical bohemian heartland and den of iniquity – is reported to be dying; and it’s fading fast according to Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Eryk Bagshaw.

He wrote this week (The death of Kings Cross as we know it) that foot traffic in The Cross plummeted by an extraordinary 48% over the two years to 2012. He also counted 35 shops on the 300 metre main drag currently up for rent and various dance venues and hotels under conversion to “boutique apartments” .

Business owners blame the state government’s new lock-out laws but it’s not the only plausible culprit. According to a commercial real estate expert Mr Bagshaw spoke to, a more likely explanation is “gentrification” over the last decade. (1)

The trend in the Cross is long-term residential housing and it’s incompatible with a late night party scene…  There is a significant change in the demographic. It’s not the area that people go to for bar and nightclubs any more.

I’m not sure the change in demographics is the only cause, but it’s a familiar story. Underlying economic and social changes lead to land use adjustments that inexorably alter the long-established character of an area, often dramatically.

If Mr Bagshaw is right, the demise of The Cross would be a huge loss for a lot of Sydneysiders and Australians. It’s a special place in the popular imagination, synonymous with open-mindedness, escape, unconventionality, sensuality, and a frisson of danger.

At various times over the last century it’s been Sydney’s red-light district; a haven for bohemians and artists; a refuge from an intolerant world for minority groups; the city’s music hall, gambling and strip club district; and fertile ground for organised crime and police corruption.

Although their image of the Cross is probably highly romanticised compared to the present day reality, I’ve no doubt many would want to “save” it; not just those who visit it regularly but also the far greater number who value the idea that something like it exists in contemporary Australia.

However it’s unlikely that formally protecting the traditional idea of The Cross is possible. It wouldn’t be just a matter of protecting a collection of significant buildings in a historically important precinct.

It would have to be a deliberate attempt to protect the character – the personality – of a place. That’s primarily a function of people and their myriad interactions rather than the built environment. Further, Kings Cross is much more than geography; it’s also an idea. For many, it’s an abstraction generated by youthful or occasional visits.

I’ve noted before that it’s very hard to protect an intangible quality like the culture of a place because it’s hard to understand and control the complex forces that gave rise to it (see Can we protect that intangible ‘sense of place’?).

But that might all be beside the point. I wonder if the romantic version of The Cross even exists any more, or if the role the area historically played in Sydney and Australia is relevant in today’s world.

The underlying social forces that created and sustained the popular idea of The Cross for at least 70-80 years have weakened considerably over the last 20 years or so.

The Cross evolved in a different climate when prostitution, gambling, drinking and sensuality were all highly restricted and accordingly invited criminal ‘regulation’; when unconventional views on religion, morality and politics were openly and often cruelly censured; and when a person’s sexual orientation could be the grounds for imprisonment.

The Cross was to a large degree the product of repression and regulation. Things aren’t perfect now, but they’re vastly better than they were even a few decades ago. Those who took refuge or sought opportunity by clustering in Kings Cross – whether as visitors or residents – now have many more spatial choices and it seems they’re choosing to exercise them. (2)

Interventions intended to “save The Cross” by limiting housing supply or restricting the kinds of businesses than can operate in the area won’t bring back the romantic version of The Cross , but they could have unintended negative effects.

History lays a heavy hand, so despite demographic change we should nevertheless expect Kings Cross to remain a key place for entertainment and cultural activity for a long time yet, albeit a relatively conventional one by historical standards. Still, the marketers will no doubt continue to remind residents and visitors of its mythic past.

But any danger from a walk on the wild side in tomorrow’s Kings Cross is more likely to come from a drunken yobbo than from a career criminal or a subversive idea.

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  1. ‘Gentrification’ probably isn’t the right term here; it usually implies much richer in-movers displacing established poor residents.
  2. Or in the case of criminals and corrupt police, fewer opportunities from clustering in The Cross.
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