Light Up My Grave

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Words || Georgia Drewe

I remember my first experience with Sydney’s nightlife. I was fresh out of high school. I’d taken a half-hearted puff on a joint sitting at a new acquaintance’s shitty outdoor dining table a week ago, so naturally I was imbued with streetwise confidence. At any moment I may have even figured out what sex was and what it was for. (I still don’t know, and nobody will explain it to me.) I hit up Oxford Street with my friends, and we traversed the city freely. The neon lights left imprints in my vision, and that night was the night I learned just how much there was to my city that I had no idea about. Weaving our way in and out of clubs and other joints lit up against the young night, we made our way to the bottom of the iconic Coke Sign. Watching the lights flash, the dancing colours on my skin, I felt a sense of immense and dizzying freedom. Okay, the dizzying part might have been the amyl, but the freedom was nice.

I went back to Kings Cross a few weeks ago, to see a play at the Kings Cross Theatre, upstairs in the Hotel – one of the few places that has remained open on the iconic strip.

The change in the community was palpable; a painful contrast from the glamorous amorality and optimism of previous years. Windows were dark, lease signs were everywhere, and the few bars that were open past midnight were overcrowded and fronted with menacing security, but the neon still glowed. The city felt like a burnt out husk, a fragile shell of what it was, but the neon grave markers still blazed out against the sky. When the colours of the lights hit my skin, it looked drained under the gaudy, blinking patterns.

There’s no denying that Kings Cross has changed. Some may say it’s for the better; as a well-known Red Light district, the Cross was a hotspot of corruption and illegal activity. But since the decline of business after the the lock out laws, over 42 venues on the strip have closed down or moved away – replaced with offices, chain stores and retail venues. Nightclub owners have spoken up about the decision of many of their number to sell their venues to developers to make room for apartments. Recently, the council has agreed to allow the iconic neon from two such closed venues –Porky’s nightclub and Dreamgirls – to remain after the venues are turned into office spaces, as homage to the kind of business the strip once turned out.

The way I feel about this decision is complicated. I’ve never been one to resent or hamper progress, and business owners in the Cross affected by the shifting culture – the ‘End of the Golden Mile,’ if you will – might benefit from having office workers and retail foot traffic contributing to the mix of people that frequent the streets. And even I – a staunch advocate for drug legalisation and the advancement of rights to work for sex workers – would hesitate to say that everything that happened in the Cross back in the day was beneficial. As much as change hurts, I’m glad that, on some level, some aspect of the area is staying. Losing that neon would have meant losing a part of history.

On the other hand, the government’s decision to let the neon signs remain adorning the empty streets could be considered a move simply seeking to save face. All these accusations of a city being gutted to its core can be deflected by pollies more easily if the lights remain. ‘What do you mean, Kings Cross is dead? Look at the lights! Does this neon look dead to you?’ The decision to let the street look the same, despite the people and places which made it what it was having to make room for another McDonalds, just adds insult to injury. These neon signs are markers for a city that doesn’t exist anymore. They are hollow, painful reminders of a city that was chopped up and thrown out.

Let’s not ignore the reality: King Cross is a Dive, and has always been a Dive. But every city has a Dive. Melbourne has St Kilda. Los Angeles has… The entire city of Los Angeles. Kings Cross was ours. And unlike dodgy areas of other cities, Kings Cross was actually pretty safe to wander around in after dark; after all, that was its main appeal. I think areas like these are essential for a city; there is always demand for things like drugs and sex work, no matter how illegal, and evidence is clear that legalisation actually decreases risk and keeps people a lot safer.

Kings Cross might have had a reputation, Underbelly-style, as a place where shady dealings went on, but in reality it was a haven for many. Drag Queens, artists, partygoers and numerous members of the LGBTQI+ community and other minority groups often found a home in the Cross. People that felt excluded and unsafe in the streamlined, hetero-centric nightclubs scattering the rest of the city could always find a place to let loose.

Media coverage of the controversial ‘coward punch,’ attacks that took place in the Cross are missing some crucial details, like the fact the majority of attacks took place before 10pm. Locking people out of bars at 1am would not have made a difference to these incidents. Data from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research tell you straight up that any violence that used to happen on the streets in the Cross has now been moved to the only place in the city big enough and rich enough to cover it up – not eradicated, as the government would have us all believe. Just moved, and hidden, inside the glittery walls of The Star Casino.

If the government genuinely wanted to stop these incidents, they could have looked into why Australians have an alcohol problem, or examine culturally embedded ideas that promote and valorise violent attitudes in young people, or investigate and address the social problems that lead to substance abuse.

But they didn’t, because this isn’t about keeping people safe. The streets are no safer than before. Australians certainly aren’t drinking less. This is about an incredibly lucrative business opportunity: to turn the prime real estate in the Cross into spaces for offices and retail outlets and chain stores, and sell off pieces of our history, our industry, and our dwindling number of safe places for LGBTQI+ Australiansmto the highest possible bidder. The Kings Cross neon remains a painful remainder of the city that was, which got sold away, piece by piece.

This isn’t some misty-eyed nostalgia to a time where ‘Things Used To Be Better’. This is not a lament of progress, and a desire to keep Sydney the way it was in the faux-golden memories of the people I know who grew up in the vibrant heart of Sydney at its prime. Because what we’re seeing isn’t progress.

Looking around the city, there are still crowds looking for a place to have a bit of fun, go to a gig, or have a drink. People haven’t relented on their desire to party. Instead, they get thrown onto the streets; streets lined with square offices and dark windows, but still lit up with flickering neon.