BY LOUIS NOWRA
Cities are about change. The new replaces the old. There can be no better example than what is happening to Kings Cross. At the moment the Omnia apartment block now being built on the former Crest Hotel site will provide 135 luxury apartments once it’s finished. Part of its plans is to develop the western section of Darlinghurst road with cafes and restaurants. A few doors up, the Porky’s strip club and associated buildings will become an office block.
Perhaps the most extensive development proposed for the eastern side of Darlinghurst Road is the demolition of buildings from the El Alamein Fountain to the former Les Girls nightclub, Empire Hotel, taking in the Bourbon and Beefsteak site. This space will be replaced with an eight-storey building with 83 ‘luxury’ apartments. The proposal is being put forward to the City of Sydney with obscene haste, using the holiday period of January to avoid considered criticisms.
Those people who have voiced their dismay have indulged in nostalgia for what the Bourbon and Beefsteak and Les Girls once represented at the height of their popularity thirty or so years ago. I’ve never been one for nostalgia because essentially it’s about one’s youth and remembered happiness. This can’t be reclaimed, just as the former potency of the earlier Kings Cross can’t be.
Since 2000 the area has been dramatically redeveloped, with hotels turned into apartments and former iconic venues like the Bourbon transformed into a yuppie venue or demolished like Barons. Strip clubs and night clubs have closed and the lock-outs mean that young people have decided to go elsewhere.
The City of Sydney, led by the Lord Mayor Clover Moore, has pushed these changes, because as Moore has stated, she wants the area to become a village like Paddington. When she wanted to transform the Fitzroy Gardens a few years ago (a proposal that was thankfully defeated by locals), she wanted it to be not so much a park as a thoroughfare for up market apartment owners.
Once the area was celebrated for its heterogeneous and tolerant mixture of people. Bohemians, lawyers, prostitutes, sly groggers, nightclub patrons, gays, the wealthy and the poor lived side by side. It was a relief from the conformity of the suburbs. As the Cross has changed, its population has become homogenous. The well-off and well-heeled have become the norm. Those who have bought into the area want it transformed into a comfortable and conformist principality. In other words, they want to suburbanize it.
Families want it safe, regulated and the past removed. Kings Cross is a name loathed by both the real estate agents and the new inhabitants. Now it’s called Potts Point South. The developer of the Bourbon site refers to it as ‘The Kings Cross area of Potts Point’. The very name and former spirit of the Cross is in the process of being obliterated.
I’m not against the new. My criticisms of the proposed Fitzroy Gardens was that it was a terrible design, out of character with the place and it failed to appreciate the social importance of the Gardens. One just has to look at the proposed building that will replace the Bourbon and Empire to be appalled at the anemic and banal design. This is a building without character, without shame. It’s very blandness is not only visually offensive, but signals its existence as merely a money making exercise, reminiscent of those terrible designs intended for the area during the early 1970s, many of them not built thanks to the Green Bans.
You’d think that at least someone in the City of Sydney organization would know something about architecture and its relation to the spirit of a place and its past but it seems not. The City of Sydney is very excited by these rushed developments because they want to obliterate the unsightly, the disadvantaged, and the different. They want the whole area to become Potts Point.
What will happen once Omnia and the new development up the road are completed, there will be a concerted effort by the new apartment owners, that is, those who can afford these ‘luxury’ units, to have the last vestiges of Kings Cross removed. They’ll want the name gone and with it the Injecting Centre and the Wayside Chapel. They will then have the bland, middle-class homogeneity they aspire to and have paid a fortune to avaricious property developers for.
Louis Nowra, author of Kings Cross: a biography and Woolloomooloo: a biography.