Is the Cross nailed?

The swift and sustained removal of Kings Cross’s nightlife has left revellers at a loss. Edward Ovadia laments the changes. Historical image of Kings Cross circa 1968 courtesy of City of Sydney.

We used to have a great system. Pre-drinks at home, then a couple stashed in a plastic bag for the train. There’d be a vigorous debate on the merits of a stop in the city at Bar Ace or Maloney’s for $3 spirits, and then on to the Cross, and what is now the New Hampton Hotel for $2.90 beers. 

By that point, we’d had what was universally accepted as the right amount to drink. That is, enough to get you onto the dancefloor, but not too much that the bouncer at Dragonfly or Goldfish wouldn’t believe you’d only had “two or three”, as you looked down at your leather shoes, handed over your ID, and tried to avoid giving the game away. 

Who would want to live surrounded by clubs, bars and strip clubs, we used to wonder, with a mix of jealousy and schadenfreude. A great place to crash for a weekend, assuming you had no desire to sleep or do anything except drink and bounce around the streets. The hostels lining Victoria Street resembled heaving pubs themselves, and no one was under any illusion of impending quiet or rest.

But now, a decade later, I’m that person. Living on Victoria Street, a hundred metres from YU, The Passage, and every Saturday night memory from a thoroughly enjoyable youth. Except that none of those places exist anymore … as we all know from the thousands of words written about the lockout laws. Instead, I have a choice of three different yet suspiciously identical wine bars full of natural wine, craft beer, and locally made charcuterie. Not a single Tooheys New in sight, although that’s probably for the best. 

I stop in at my closest neighbourhood convenience store, one of the last on Victoria Street. “There used to be five or six of us all lined up along this street,” the owner tells me. “I used to run three with my brother and father.” Standing in his shop, I’m within 200 metres of two Woolworths, a Coles, and a Harris Farm, all servicing what is now some of Australia’s most densely populated and sought-after real estate. 

“We were always busy — coffee, sandwiches, cigarettes, condoms, breakfast cereal — whatever you needed,” he says with more than a hint of sadness. Now he’s the only one left and is only able to accommodate lower sales because he owns the shop rather than leasing it. There’s still foot traffic, but it’s no longer the kind that values buying Nutri-Grain, Winfields, and a few of Durex’s finest all at once. 

These days Kings Cross is more beauty than beast. The chirping birds almost drown out the daytime drinkers and it’s easy to avoid the few remaining strip clubs. The streets are lined with trees, cafes, bars and restaurants, where options for avo on toast outweigh doner kebabs at least two to one. The city is just a leisurely walk down William Street. It’s an easy place to live.

It’s also been through some of Sydney’s most sudden and jarring changes of the past 10 years. So comprehensive was the eradication of all signs of nightlife that the only clues remaining are the rows of hostels with their confused backpackers, spilling out on the street clutching old guidebooks, wondering what they’re doing here.

The generic high-rise apartments built on top of decades worth of history have all been sold for peak Sydney prices, locking in a change in demographic who would never tolerate the re-opening of the Kings Cross nightlife. 

When Hugo’s Lounge closed in 2015, we used phrases like “end of an era” and assumed the transition was complete. We set about moving on. We stopped coming every weekend, but instead some of us moved in permanently, looking to embrace the new Kings Cross, and make memories on top of the old.

But then, late last year, World Bar closed. 

No other venue has so completely captured the imagination and dedication of Sydney’s late-night revellers. We’d go for an intimate conversation upstairs or a riotous dance out back. It was both the feature destination and the backup when no one could agree (“let’s just go to World Bar” solved all Saturday night 1am arguments). It welcomed you whether you drank discount sav blanc or cocktails from that signature World Bar vessel, the teapot. Regardless of the day of the week, the length of the line, or the cost of the cover charge, it was the one place you always had a good time. 

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Those who knew and loved it were sure it would survive. We felt safe knowing that despite all the change, at least World Bar would remain. Sadly, for all the backpackers aimlessly wandering the streets, for all the middle-aged rockers who occasionally want to relive their youth, and for the next generation who never had the chance, we were wrong. 

Just last month, however, the owners of the Kings Cross Hotel proudly refused to comply with a rooftop trading ban prompted by residents in the brand-new multimillion dollar high-rise Omnia building next door. The residents had magnanimously waited two months before complaining about the noise from the pub they knew was there when they moved in. 

For the nostalgic reveller, this one act of defiance suggests a flicker of hope for a Kings Cross that stays open after-dark.