I remember when I was much younger Kings Cross, or at least Darlinghurst Road, seemed much longer. Actually, I still remember the first time I wandered down to Kings Cross. A friend and I had decided we would start a new life in a new city, and we had randomly picked Sydney. Mind you, that adventure lasted a grand total of two weeks before I got in touch with my parents and asked for a bus fare back home. The interesting thing is that even though this was something like twenty five years ago, the cost of a bus fare hasn’t seemed to have changed all that much. In fact it is basically the same as a plane fare is these days, so while things like food, alcohol, cigarettes, and rent have all gone up (the cost of rent has literally quadrupled since I first moved out of home), the cost of travel, or at least interstate travel, has become much cheaper.
Anyway, I remember arriving in Sydney somewhat disorientated and confused, and had no idea that Oxford Street, where the bus terminal was located back then (it is now located at Central Station), was the centre of the alternative community. Mind you, this was the early nineties so we were rather ignorant of people who chose to live an alternate lifestyle, and we generally didn’t associate with them. Well, that isn’t actually true because one of our good friends was actually did live an alternate lifestyle, though we never talked about it. Well, we would occasionally tease him, but that is something that Australians tend to do. However, finding ourselves in the middle of the alternate community in Sydney was something of a shock, and a little worrying to those of us who where from the conservative backwater that was Adelaide.
The First Walk
The thing with my friend was, despite his tough exterior, he was a complete wimp – he was actually scared of walking down Darlinghurst Road. Me, I was completely the opposite – I had heard a lot about the place but had never had an opportunity to actually see it. My experience of an ‘entertainment district’, a rather nice way of describing the sleazy part of the city, was Hindley Street. Mind you, back in those days I was half expecting Kings Cross to be a much, much more intense version of Hindley Street, and in a way it was. However, my friend really didn’t want a bar of the place.
As it turned out, as we were wandering around the Rocks, looking for a way to get up onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge, we got talking with a couple of people, who realising that he didn’t have any place to stay, invited us back to their hotel room. As it turned out the hotel was located on Darlinghust Road, right in the middle of Kings Cross. Well, despite all of my friend’s protests and reservations we landed up there anyway. However, this was back in the early 90s, and the place has gone through a lot of transformations since then.
The thing that stood out that first time was that along one side of the road where the prostitutes, and they were pretty obvious about what they were doing. Back in those days prostitution was illegal, however it seemed as if the authorities turned a blind eye to the whole profession. Though there was a suggestion in a rather popular Television series – Underbelly – that the reason the police took a blind eye was because they were all on the take. So, we walked down one side and passed streetwalker after streetwalker after streetwalker. However, when we crossed the road at the end of the strip and walked back down the otherside we were then propositioned by these doormen that wanted us to go into their clubs. Due to our limited financial resources we politely declined, however during the two weeks that we were there I did make the trek back a couple of more times.
I still look back on that two week adventure, and a part of me is still trying to work out where we went and what we did. I remember attempting to panhandle on Pitt Street Mall, pretending to be charity collectors, that is until the police moved us along. I also remember taking a door knocking job in Surry Hills were we would be driven out to a random part of the city and were then expect to collect money for charity – these were pretty easy jobs to get because all you needed to do was be willing to ask people for money, and you would then get a cut of the takings. Mind you, it is basically a huge scam because out of all the money that is collected only a small amount ever ends up at the charity. However, the trick was to not just be able to sell yourself, and your cause, but to also have a cause that would tug on people’s heartstrings – it is sort of like harvesting likes on Facebook. As for where I collected, personally, I’m still trying to work it out but I suspected that it was somewhere around Drumoyne.
I’m not sure exactly when it was, but I was at university, living with some friends, and had a car, so I suspect it was somewhere around the year 2000. Anyway, it was the holidays and I decided to go on a trek around the east coast, visiting Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney. This was the second time that I had managed to visit the Cross, namely because the other times I had been in Sydney I hadn’t had to opportunity. Anyway, we arrived in Sydney, dropped the car off at the caravan park (we were poor students so we couldn’t afford a motel, let alone a hotel), and caught the train into the city – and made our way straight to Kings Cross.
The odd thing is that despite the fact that there is a railway station at Kings Cross, we never seemed to ever catch the train there. I still remember the Sydney ticket machines back in those days – there was a button for basically every single station on the network and you would press one button for your origin and one button for your destination (actually, your origin would be the station you were currently standing at). For some reason we never pressed the button for Kings Cross, just the button for the city, and would then walk from the city, up William Street, to the Cross. Actually, I suspect the reason for that was because of the huge Coca-cola sign that signals the entrance. In fact there are two distinctive marks for each each of ‘The Cross’ – the Coca-Cola sign and the Fountain. That doesn’t necessarily say that all of the interesting things in the cross are between these two points, but that a bulk of them are.
Still, a part of me still wasn’t all that familiar with the area, though when we did the walk along Darlinghurst Road there was one major difference – the prostitutes were gone. Sure, they were probably still there, and I suspected that I saw some down the side alleyways, but they certainly weren’t out in the open. A part of me suspected at the time that the reason for this was that prostitution had been legalised and as such the Cross had been cleaned up, but now that I look back on it maybe it was something else.
The thing is that brothels didn’t suddenly appear when prostitution was legalised – they had always been there, it is just that the street walkers wanted to be independent of these organisations. It is similar in Thailand where the street walkers are street walkers because it generally means more money for them, and they don’t have to share their takings with a mamasam. Yet it was noticeable that the street walkers were gone, unless it was that the first time I was there the girls weren’t street walkers but instead were like the doormen who were trying to entice us to go into one of the parlours – and the parlours are definitely still there.
I remember sitting at a pub with my friends that night and watching the street walkers go about their job. It seemed as if they get a cut for whoever they get to go into the joint, because some of them were very, very active (and persuasive). In fact I remember watching one guy who would chase people up and down Darlinghurst Road trying to get them to go inside. Needless to say that being the poor students that we were, the whole idea of actually going into one of them was out of the question (though of course, being young, and male, with a couple of male friends, the temptation was always there).
How Things Change
There is a saying that goes along the lines of ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. Over the past few years I have been to Sydney multiple times, usually because there is a play there that isn’t being performed in Melbourne, and have wandered Darlinghurst Road a couple of those times. I have to admit that I have simply grown out of the whole scene, or more precisely, it is nowhere near as fascinating, or exciting, as it once was, but then again having been to Bangkok and Phuket, the who concept of sleazy has risen to a new level. The funny thing is that a number of Christian pastors that I have known have referred to Sydney as ‘The City of Sin’, no doubt in reference to Kings Cross and Oxford Street. Well, my response to that is that if Sydney is a city of sin, then they clearly haven’t been to Bangkok.
The funny thing is that Darlinghurst road really doesn’t seem to be as long as I originally thought it was. In fact it looks quite short. These days I catch the train from Town Hall, and the last time I visited the street (namely because I wanted to go and check out a burger bar that happens to be just off of it), I started walking up the street and the next thing I knew I was at the end looking at the fountain. However, I then decided to go and have a drink, and the first bar I walked into was okay. Actually that particular bar I remember going there one night a couple of years ago and getting caught up with a conversation with some locals and spending much more time there than I originally anticipated. Also, I had a hotel room just around the corner, which was also pretty handy.
This time though things had changed a lot, but that has a lot to do with government’s knee jerk reaction to social problems, and in Sydney this social problem is drunken violence. Mind you, I do wonder why places like London and Paris, which are much, much bigger than Sydney, don’t have lockout laws or sophisticated security. Well, I did discover that pubs in London do seem to close around 11:00pm to Midnight, but then again Ministry of Sound did open at 11:00 pm and carried on until 5:00 am (though when I stepped inside for a visit, when I left the pub near Elephant and Castle was still open). As for Kings Cross, after 9:00 pm the heavy security comes out and you suddenly discover that you have to jump through a number of hoops just to get into one of the pubs. In the end I decided that it wasn’t worth it and basically went back to my hotel – at least I didn’t have to do that with the pubs in the city, not that the pubs in the city are actually any good (well, Three Monkeys is, but that is an exception) – if you want the good pubs you actually have to go into the surrounding suburbs, such as Newtown, Glebe, and Surrey Hills.
My first impression of Kings Cross was basically strip clubs, prostitutes, and heroin addicts, though now that I am a lot more familiar with the place my impression these days is basically dodgy pubs, strip joints, and backpackers. Actually, that is one thing that seems to have changed somewhat – there are a lot more backpackers down there than I originally remembered. I guess that had something to do with it being cheap – a bunk in a backpackers hostel can be as little as $30.00 a night at some places. Mind you, I’m not sure if it is as cheap now as it used to be, however it is still pretty much swarming with backpackers. As for the pubs, well the Sugarmill, and the Kings Cross Hotel, are better than most, though they are still pretty shocking when it comes to the quality of pubs that I’m used to. As for the strip clubs, well, they are still there, but the touts don’t seem to be anywhere near as energetic as they used to be, and the prostitutes – well, it looks like they are long gone. However, the place is still basically a dump, and in the end I try to avoid it if I can.
2 thoughts on “The Sleazy Side of Sydney”