The lifting of the lockout laws on the weekend drew a sombre response from potential late night revellers with Kings Cross taking on its characteristic ghost town appearance after midnight. Whether the madness of some seven years ago will ever return, with armies of crazed party goers descending on the Cross, remains to be seen. Perhaps the most interesting question is whether the colourful identities who ran many of the bars and clubs will flock back to the land of milk and honey, and unlimited shots?
It was these same colourful identities who felt the economic brunt of the lockout laws, introduced in 2014, and eventually pulled up stumps. The Cross of course has a long and celebrated history of night clubs and restaurants being owned and operated by businessmen, sometimes described as gangsters but with defamation in mind, often referred to as simply ‘colourful’. Abe Saffron was often labelled ‘Mr Sin’ but launched numerous law suits against various publications whom he claimed has besmirched his entrepreneurial personna.
Whilst many elements of the criminal milieu were entrenched in Kings Cross from the post-war period onwards, there’s no doubt they added a certain vibrancy to the area, albeit with the occasional murder and retaliatory violence. The economics of running a club or bar were made a lot easier if you had a lucrative drug trade on the side. In the early 90s, with lingering police corruption, cocaine was endemic in the Cross. At one popular venue, a favourite of the entertainment industry, it could be bought with a credit card across the bar, conveniently explained as a bottle of expensive champagne on your monthly statement.
Another late night music venue, an institution in the Cross, was run by one of the city’s biggest coke dealers who eventually fell foul of the law following a massive drug seizure. An old friend of mine, now deceased, once worked as the sound engineer at the venue and recalled his first night there. He was putting the mics away in the safe at the end of the gig and spotted a couple of revolvers. “Ah, just push those aside and make some room,” was the nonchalant advice from the jovial owner.
I have written before how live music thrived in KC during the late 80s and throughout the 90s, largely due to elements of corruption, low level police enforcement and a pervading atmosphere of laissez faire. If you visited Abe Saffron’s Paradise Jazz Cellar in Darlinghurst Rd, where the music often ran all night, there was even a responsible serving of alcohol. When legendary US saxophonist Art Pepper once played there in the early 80s I recall downing numerous glasses of spirits but leaving almost totally sober. In the interests of sobriety the watering of drinks was obviously a widespread public service!
The lifting of the lockout laws in the Cross, on trial for the next twelve months, will no doubt breathe some life back into a precinct, which has also been heavily hit by the COVID restrictions. The move to revive the old Minerva theatre as a possible 1,000 capacity venue could not be more important and could easily spark a whole cultural renaissance for the area.
Whether some of the former colourful operators will be drawn back to the post-COVID, post-lockout Kings Cross is hard to predict. The lure of flogging unlimited shots after midnight might be too much to keep them away and a number of them still hold real estate interests in the neighbourhood. If the Cross bounces back, as many want it to do, it could become a three-way battle between creeping gentrification, cultural renewal and the ‘return of the mack’.