Kings Cross: A Biography, Louis Nowra, NewSouth Books
In the late eighties I visited Sydney with my girlfriend at the time. We stayed in a fleabag hotel in the middle of Kings Cross, walked around the neon-lit streets at night and bought a bag of marijuana off an emaciated dealer in an alley next to a strip joint. It turned out to be mostly dried parsley.
Not much of a connection with Australia’s capital of sleaze and sin, I know. But what my real life interactions lacked, imagination made up for, fuelled by Kings Cross’s place in Australian popular culture.
One of my favourite fictional private investigators, Cliff Hardy, the creation of Sydney author Peter Corris, has done his fair share of time knocking around the Cross. The terrific 1995 television mini-series Blue Murder and the not-so-wonderful Underbelly: Razor and Underbelly: The Golden Mile also did their bit to maintain its unsavoury reputation.
In the sixties and early seventies, Kings Cross was the subject of a number of risqué local pulp novels, many of which I have collected: titles like Night In Kings Cross, Kings Cross Racket and Model School. These dealt with the now familiar trope of an impressionable young woman drawn from the countryside to the bright lights of Kings Cross, becoming involved in drugs, prostitution and wild living. Sometimes concerned boyfriends or brothers rescued them. In more than a few stories, the women grew to like their new lives, the strange sense of freedom and abandon.
On my recent visits to the Cross I’ve found a very different place to the one encountered in the late eighties: apartments full of moneyed couples and empty nesters, upmarket restaurants and hotels, queues of young people waiting not so patiently to get into swish nightclubs and bars.
Kings Cross: A Biography by playwright Louis Nowra, published late last year by NewSouth Books, is an attempt to explore the reality and myths of an area that has exercised a considerable hold over our nation’s imagination.
Nowra, who has lived in Kings Cross since 1990, is no stranger to the area’s darker side and has absolutely no desire to play it down. ‘That Kings Cross can be a dangerous place is a given but it can also be enticing for all the wrong reasons,’ he says early in the book. ‘It can be sinister in a subtle way, when its louche charm and cavalier attitude to society’s moral code seduce the unwary by cultivating an aspect of your personality no-one, not even you, suspected was curled up inside the darker recesses of your mind.’
The streetwalkers, drug addicts, alcoholics, crime lords and corrupt cops are present throughout the book. But Nowra also delves into Kings Cross’s role as an incubator of new idea and practices, constantly at the forefront of cultural change in Australia.
A slum before the First World War, the nineteen twenties transformed Kings Cross into the country’s first centre of apartment living. Sly grog and prostitution followed, leading to the well-documented gang war between rival crimes groups headed up by Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh.
This became so serious that in 1936 police offered to go easy on sly grog sales and prostitution in the Cross in return for a cessation of hostilities. ‘Policing the Cross would be done with the knowledge that the area was the one place in Australia where certain criminal activities would be tolerated in order to stop their spread into the rest of the community.’
The policy would have terrible repercussions many years later when the rise of Abe Saffron, the corrupt Liberal government of Robert Askin and an influx of heroin from Indochina, transformed Kings Cross into the crime capital of Australia.
Corrupt development practices followed. Nowra details the popular struggles against this, the now famous Builders Labourers Federation Green Bans and the campaign by crusading local newspaper editor Juanita Nielson. Nielson’s efforts eventually lead to her disappearance in 1975, almost certainly at the hands of organised crime, a story dramatized in the excellent but little known 1982 Phillip Noyce film, Heatwave.
The area’s decline only reversed in the nineties due to the Wood Royal Commission into police corruption and the slow drift of the sex industry into the outer suburbs, paralleled by an influx of middle class residents seeking inner city apartment living.
But while much of the Kings Cross story is well known, Nowra unearths a lot that is new. The wave of apartment building after the First World War not only made the Cross the most heavily populated part in the country, it allowed young men and women to live unsupervised in the same geographical proximity. This was an anathema to the prevailing mainstream notion of family life, and led to a moral panic around the sexual implications, especially for young women.
The combination of low rents and proximity to the heart of the city also made the Cross a sought after location for artists and bohemians. This in turn fuelled a culture of jazz, art, poetry and literature, much of it in explicit rejection of the prevailing ‘bush culture’ of the day.
What was a ‘den of inequity’ to some critics was a cosmopolitan refuge for others. Side by side with its reputation as Australia’s vice capital, from the thirties to the sixties, Kings Cross became one of the few places in the country were alternative sexualities and lifestyles were openly tolerated. It had a thriving communist scene and was a haven for Italian, Greek and Jewish migrants, as well as Germans refugees escaping the Nazism.
What makes Nowra’s take particularly interesting is his focus on the area’s history from the ground up and the characters that populated it. Formal history is interspersed with personal reflections and memories, often based on particular geographical areas or landmarks. There’s a wonderful chapter on Doncaster Hall, the old apartment block Nowra lived in for a decade, and the Sebel Townhouse Hotel, a rendezvous for visiting international actors and rock musicians in the seventies and eighties.
The area’s beggars, street people, prostitutes and heroin addicts also have their place. Nowra’s portraits of these people are sharp and, at times, surprisingly moving. He has a seasoned libertine’s eye for their cadence, nuances and humour, the way their ramshackle lives are both tragic and a cause for great celebration. Nowra’s Cross belongs to them as much as it does anyone else.
At least, it did before gentrification began to sweep away the old order of things, physically and culturally. Kings Cross is changing quickly and the book was ‘driven by a sense of urgency to record its history, to illustrate its importance’, before it faded away.
Spend time in a place and, inevitably, you’ll notice how it changes. With increasing regularity I pass familiar locations around my home in Melbourne’s inner north, well-known buildings that have been demolished, sometimes overnight. It always disturbs me when I can’t immediately remember what stood there.
It’s not so much the pace of change that is alarming, but the failure to record what once was. Kings Cross: A Biography got me thinking. Where are Melbourne’s from the ground up social histories? Where is the equivalent book on St Kilda?