Kings Cross is on the edge of the city. It’s on the edge physically, sited on the rise above Woolloomooloo valley and it is on the edge mentally (if a suburb can be so described), a place where just about anything can happen, you can run into anybody and where if you scratch the surface, history seeps out.
In terms of Europeans, it took a bit of time for them to get up there. The first buildings did not appear until 1819 when a windmill was erected on the ridge at the Darlinghurst end. The place was perfect for windmills, catching the harbour breeze and grinding colonial grain. The mills were followed from 1828 by a series of grand mansions, built to house the colonial gentry. It was Sydney’s first exclusive suburb, with the land granted by Governor Darling on the proviso that the houses cost more than £1000 (a lot of money in 1828).
But all good things come to an end.
An economic downturn (sound familiar) in 1840 meant many of the grand properties were subdivided into smaller lots. Between 1850 and 1880 the large allotments were subdivided and built out with villas, terraces houses, town houses and workers houses. But Kings Cross held out and remained middle and upper class throughout the 19th century.
Before we go further, what of the name? The area was originally called Darlinghurst Heights, then Darlinghurst, then Potts Point amongst other names. From the 1850s or so, the top of William Street where it crossed Victoria Road and Darlinghurst Road became known as Queens Cross, after Queen Victoria. When she died in 1901 the crossing was renamed Kings Cross, but it had been know as the Cross for some time anyway.
So the 20th century is when the Cross as we know it now begins to emerge. From the 1890s through to the 1920s it was a place best known for its artists, musicians and bohemians, attracted by its proximity to the city and cheap rents. The Cross was home to the soon to be famous and infamous. The poet Kenneth Slessor lived there, David Scott Mitchell of Mitchell Library fame lived there and later William Dobell lived there. But in the 1920s and 1930s the gangsters also began to appear. Razor gangs roamed the streets of Darlinghurst and soon enough street fights were par for the course in the Cross. In 1929 two street battles in Eaton Avenue (the Battle of Blood Alley) and Kellet Street saw guns, razors and bricks and bottles used between rival gangs vying for control of the growing cocaine trade.
With World War II a whole new opportunity opened up for business. Overseas servicemen poured into the area, attracted by bars and restaurants, which were in turn attracted by the soldiers. A young entrepreneur called Abe Saffron opened Sydney’s first real nightclub, the Roosevelt Club in Orwell Street. Soon enough bars and clubs were opening up all over and the place was set on its path. Vietnam followed quick behind WWII and new types of clubs opened, strip joints and Les Girls, Sydney’s first quality drag show.
But then in 1975 a young activist, Juanita Nielsen fighting to save the old district, disappeared. Believed murdered, her death changed the view of the place. Now it was dangerous.
And so it goes ups and downs, swings and roundabouts. The Cross remains a place of intrigues, crafty characters, dodgy deals, glittering lights, neon, sights that would make your eyes water.
It’s Sydney in a small package.