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Unlikely Neighbours: Sydney’s Kings Cross and Potts Point

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Unlikely Neighbours: Sydney’s Kings Cross and Potts Point
Hip eats on Llankelly Place, between Potts Point and Kings Cross, Sydney. Photo by Piotr Halka

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The usual surfie suspects get on the Eastern Suburbs line from Sydney’s Circular Quay station: blonde dudes with orange, glowing skin, and a quiet, dreadlocked guy in the corner, steadying his surfboard against the rumblings of the train. Then there’s me, the tourist with Google Maps at the ready. Bondi Station is two stops after Kings Cross and I am tempted to continue on and catch some sun on the busy Bondi Beach, but the lure of visiting Sydney’s enfant terrible wins over for today.

As the escalator takes me out of the depths of the Kings Cross train station, black polished combat boots are the first objects to appear in my line of vision. The image slowly arranges itself into full view, and I see they are the boots of a police officer, carefully scanning the crowd of disembarking passengers, on the hunt for persons involved in some mischief from the night before. Already, this troublesome area is living up to its reputation.

Emerging into the sunlight onto Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross smells like last night. Cigarette butts are dotted along the road, traces of broken glass shimmer in the sunlight, and a few happy revellers are partying into the day, wine glasses in hand and dancing shoes on their feet.

The colourful history of Kings Cross begins during the Second World War, when hundreds of American naval personnel resided in this area. These navy boys were here for their R&R, and they made the most of it. Nightclubs and strip clubs mushroomed in Kings Cross, along with black market trading, drug dealing and prostitution.

Two naval officers in Kings Cross circa 1970 in whites and making the peace sign. © Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive
Naval officers in Kings Cross 1970-71. © Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive

Thankfully, the post-war years saw a mellowing of this rambunctious behaviour as the US Navy emptied from the area and were replaced by immigrants from the Mediterranean and Europe, as well as artists and sculptors, enhancing the cultural and culinary standing of the area. Kings Cross became the place to dine in Sydney, as well as the quarter to check out emerging artists. Sadly, drug problems proved more difficult to shake, and today, it is not uncommon to see people turning out their pockets as they are searched by police. Despite this, Kings Cross has still managed to retain a hold on its status as a bohemian area, famous for its quirky cafés, naughty nightlife and award-winning cocktail bars.

For those in search for a more gritty and risqué experience of Kings Cross, do not despair. The strip is still dotted with a handful of adult bookstores and strip clubs, as well as eccentric characters that claim the street as their home. Xenia will be scantily clad in red vinyl at 6pm sharp outside the adult shop, this I promise; and the resident drag queen is usually perched outside The Sugarmill Hotel from mid-morning to late afternoon. Today, he is a flight attendant, complete with white cotton gloves and pillbox hat, long muscular legs somehow squeezing into tiny yet towering clear Perspex heels. He happily demonstrates to anyone and everyone where the fire exits are, as well as where the nearest toilets are located.

Approaching Fitzroy Gardens, where Darlinghurst Road finishes and Macleay Street begins, there is a definite and immediate shift in atmosphere. This is the beginning of Potts Point proper, and my surroundings instantly look greener. The neon lights of Kings Cross are replaced by protective trees, whose swaying leaves block out the harsh Australian sun. The bars and restaurants smelling of beer and cigarettes have morphed into New York-style apartment buildings, with their well-dressed inhabitants carrying hessian bags of fresh bread and French cheese from Bottega del Vino. No longer are inebriated souls still partying from the night before. Instead, there are stylish pedestrians sporting the latest Dolce and Gabbana eyewear and yes, darling, that is Burberry.

A view of the bar and shelves of alcohol bottles behind it at Eau de Vie on Darlinghurst Road in Kings Cross, Sydney.
The dark, jazz-infused bar at Eau de Vie on Darlinghurst Road, Sydney.

I have entered the land of DINKS — double income, no kids. These incomes come in a variety of couplings: gay couples and their cute handbag dogs, young professional straight couples and their cute handbag dogs, empty-nesters and chic retirees — and their cute handbag dogs. Unlike Paris, however, one does not need to play hopscotch on the streets to dodge the dog poop, as Potts Point residents are a diligent bunch who do pick up after their four-legged charges. Amazingly, there is no overspill from Kings Cross into this posh part of town. It’s as if there is an invisible barrier between these two worlds, and they coexist unknowingly.

This moneyed area is a hive of delicious restaurants, and surprisingly, the prices do not break the bank. I am lured into Opium Den, a Thai eatery set inside a colourful cave of cushions and mismatched tables, all somehow fitting into the small room like a game of Tetris. All of the floor staff are Thai, and I am reminded of a trip to Bangkok as my waitress yells my order to the kitchen in the animated language. The red curry duck comes out, a fresh lemongrass garnish on top giving it a sweet and citrusy aroma. The duck melts in my mouth, and my tongue is doused with flavours of pungent basil, ripe tomato and tangy pineapple, blended delicately with smooth coconut cream.

Drag queens on stage playing bingo at The Sugarmill Hotel in Kings Cross, Sydney
Drag queen bingo at The Sugarmill Hotel in Kings Cross, Sydney.

Spectacularly satisfied with dinner, I roll further down Macleay Street and am suddenly greeted by two burly sailors, complete in navy blues with heavy packs diligently strapped to their backs, an image which I had previously thought to have been locked away in the history books. It turns out Garden Island Naval Base, just down the hill from Potts Point, still houses around 4,000 naval personnel.

What doesn’t this area have? Gourmet cuisine, fantastic style, and cute sailors to boot: no wonder rent prices are amongst the highest in Sydney. Potts Point’s close vicinity to the central business district of Sydney, as well as its easy access to Bondi Beach and the Eastern bays, has made it a prime suburb for inner-city living. The amount of money and influence contained within Potts Point’s art deco apartments could single-handedly bring Greece out of recession, I am sure, as the area is not only home to wealthy and well-travelled residents, but also a few distinguished politicians.

The brick front facade of the Wychbury building exemplifies Potts Point's Art Deco architecture
The Wychbury building exemplifies Potts Point’s Art Deco architecture. Photo by David Thompson

It would be very easy for Potts Point to rise above the clouds of snootiness and never see terra firma again, but perhaps it is having its disobedient neighbour Kings Cross so close, with its boisterousness and eccentricity — and the odd fatality — that keeps Potts Point grounded, and allows the area to keep its soul.

If one were to go by their reputations, Kings Cross and Potts Point should cartographically be miles apart. Encompassing the polar opposites of society, it seems comical that of all the suburbs in Sydney to be conjoined, it is these two. However, it is exactly this oddity in pairing that adds character to each area. Each suburb’s eccentricities heighten the other’s positive aspects and mellow out their more objectionable ones, showing that not only can we coexist with our neighbours, but also have a little fun while doing so.

Published on September 13, 2016
Location: Sydney
Country: Australia ›
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