There’s a popular TV show in Australia called Underbelly. It is a sexy (seriously, the lead actor is a dreamboat), dramatized look at the scandals and intrigues of Sydney’s Kings Cross neighborhood in the 1990s.
We live nearby, and the Kings Cross train station is our stop, so we spend a lot of time in The Cross.
Kings Cross is Sydney’s “red light district,” and it has a wonderfully colorful history. By all accounts, the area has been considerably cleaned up since the Underbelly days, thanks to the establishment of Australia’s first Medically Supervised Injection Center, sweeping reforms in the famously corrupt police force, and some gentrification of the neighborhood and surrounding areas.
Still, King’s Cross remains delicious, and it is hard to walk down Darlinghust Road (the Kings Cross section is also known as The Golden Mile), and not imagine what is going on behind closed doors today and what amazing stories have populated this area in the previous century.
Kings Cross gets its name from the x-shaped crossing of Darlinghust Road and Victoria Street over Williams Street (which leads into downtown, or the Central Business District – CBD).At one time, it was the hope of city planners that this spot would become Sydney’s grand rue – The Champs Elysees of Australia.
Rather than the Arc d’Triomphe, Sydney ended up with this:
The Coca Cola sign is the landmark that screams Kings Cross, and has since the 1970s. If there is anything poetic about it, I have not yet found it.
There is poetry to be found in The Cross, and to see it, you just need to look down. Brass plaques line the sidewalk and serve as reminders of former businesses, quotes from residents, historical events, and famous residents – ranging from artists to transvestite-strippers of days gone by.
The Cross’s bohemian character was first established post-WWI when the city’s first single-dwelling apartments were erected in this neighborhood. Artists, free spirits, and many new immigrants mingled here, alongside some of the city’s wealthiest residents who inhabited the older stately manors. It was all very stylish and cosmopolitan. During WWII, American soldiers also inhabited the neighborhood, bringing an American influence that has never left.
Talk to anyone about The Cross, and the topic is sure to turn to mobs and crime. I must admit, that I can’t get enough of the stories of the real underbelly. It is a well established fact that mobs ran the neighborhood for decades (well, they probably still do), and for a long time, they did so with the collusion of the police force, who both appreciated the order that organized crime instilled upon the streets and found it a profitable enterprise through an established system of bribes that the maintained alliance.
My very favorite story is of gang history is of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, the dueling female mob bosses of the 1920s and 30s, who ran Sydney. Both were madams and “sly grog” and cocaine runners, who loved the criminal life and used their razor gangs to compete for the title of Queen of the Underworld. Things between these women came to a head on Kings Cross’s Kellet Street, when the rival gangs met in the 1929 Kellet Street riot, one of the most brutal in Sydney’s history (and for a city founded by convicts, that is saying a lot!).
A couple blocks over on Victoria Street is the birthplace of Sydney’s most famous unsolved murder.
This tree lined street may look harmless, but in the early 1970s, it was the most contentious block in the city. A developer wanted to tear down these historic homes in order to build a large scale apartment building. The residents banded together to wage an opposition to the plan. They quite literally put their lives in danger by going up against some of the richest and most connected people in Sydney. They refused to leave their homes, in order to block demolition. One of their most outspoken leaders was a young woman named Juanita Nielsen, whose wealthy family owned a home on the block. She published an alternative newspaper and organized the neighbors. In 1975, Nielsen disappeared and is assumed to have been murdered. The case has never been solved, and it is the subject of great ongoing stipulation about who the culprit(s) is/are. Despite Neilsen’s murder, the Victoria Street residents prevailed and their gorgeous homes still stand.
Back to the Golden Mile today: The Cross retains its reputation for “seediness,” bohemianism, and glittering nightlife. If you wanted to tour The Cross and walk head-down, admiring the brass placards, you’d be wise to do so during the day. There’s a mild air of carnivale, as you walk past the sex shops, strip clubs, fast food joints, and lazy cafes. A few bored prostitutes hover in doorways. You can easily spot the “locals” – old before their time men and women who congregate on stoops or in cafes, wearing shabby clothes, smoking cigarettes, and sporting faces whose lines give away years of too many drugs. You’ll also see well-dressed 20 and 30-something professional Sydneysiders – both Australians and immigrants, mostly from Asia and England – wandering through from their posh digs in next-door Potts Point. The scene is further populated by what I like to call the “hostel takeover.” Most of Sydney’s backpackers are located in Kings Cross, so hordes of gap-year 20-year olds congregate here as an enhancement of their life education. No one here is in much of a hurry, and all of these people co-exist easily.
Kings Cross on a weekend night is an entirely different scene, one that more closely resembles the images of Underbelly. Darlinghurst Road is jammed with the young, the scantily clad, and the intoxicated. Many of the local clubs have velvet ropes, admitting only the beautiful and/or well-connected. Neon is the calling card of every establishment. Prostitutes are plentiful and pushy. Men in suits hussle partygoers to enter strip clubs (and, presumably, to spend a lot of money there). The nighttime crowd seems to agitate the crazies, who become louder at night. There is an air of frenzy to it all, but I don’t find it scary. I know that muggings, and even more sinister do sometimes occur here, but having a lot of experience with large cities, I know how to keep cool, keep from staring, and keep walking – the only necessary tools to make it through the Golden Mile at night. Furthermore, almost no one here has a gun, so you can walk these streets with the security that this party may get rowdy, but it is not going to get out of hand.
And so, it is with this imagination-inducing sense of history and the eye-popping collage of modern day reality that I joyfully inhabit the world under the Coke sign that is Kings Cross.