My partner and I are at the Kings Cross Markets. It’s a Saturday morning and as we stand in line for coffee, I feel like the triumphant Autumn sun is defrosting my body from the inside out. An array of fluffy white lap dogs prance by with owners, whom they share a disturbing resemblance to and a bearded homeless man asks me if I can spare him some change. I lie and tell him I can’t.
The Kings Cross Markets are held every weekend in an area known as Fitzroy Gardens. It’s a paved urban park, which is a little rough around the edges, but as Australian author Delia Falconer puts it, is “fundamentally good natured”. Consisting of planter beds built from original pale convict bricks and clusters of Chinese elm and palm trees, the garden’s main attraction is the El Alamein fountain.
Built in 1961 as a memorial to soldiers who died in 1942 during the Second World War in two battles at El Alamein, Egypt, the fountain was designed by Australian architect, Bob Woodward. Having featured in the 1999 film Two Hands and the 2010 television series Underbelly: The Golden Mile, it’s an Australian icon in itself and somewhat resembles a robotic dandelion shooting water from its tips. Seagulls and pigeons – who are responsible for the droppings splattered across the garden’s pavement – can often be found frolicking in the fountain’s tiered levels below. While, Kings Cross Police Station, which looks it’s some sort of 80‘s style terra-cotta bunker, serves as a watchful eye over all proceedings, both day and night.
Geographically, the gardens are located just north of the pedestrian traffic lights where Darlinghurst Road ends and Macleay Street begins. Right on the cusp of sleazy Kings Cross and trendy Potts Point. It’s a borderline marked by not much more than a subtle bend in a lively street, but that slaps you in the face with its sharp societal shift.
It’s a point where if you go just 50 metres north or south, you get the feeling that you have stepped into an alternate universe sharing nothing with the former, besides the 2011 post code. And yet within the gardens, particularly on the weekend, you feel as if you’ve been thrown into a sociological melting pot consisting of equals parts poverty, equal parts excess. It’s the type of place where some strut by with their dry-cleaned business shirts and others stagger along, carrying all their worldly possessions in a torn plastic bag.
Heading down Darlinghurst Road and into the infamous Kings Cross area, better known for its strip clubs and neon lights it’s not long before you are met with society’s misfits; the homeless, the mentally ill, the drug addicts, the prostitutes and the other shady characters who loiter on the peripheral. Institutions like the Wayside Chapel, which have been operating in the area since the 1960s provide a sort of refuge for these people offering them food, clothing, counselling and above all, a place to finally belong.
With shop fronts filled with everything from global mobile carriers to raunchy adult books and budget beauticians to crotchless pants and plastic whips, a sense of eccentricity and unpredictability loiters in the air. Adding to the theatrical nature of the scene, is the perennial impromptu performances by the neighborhood’s local stars. I’ve seen an African-American drag queen, clad in a red-leather mini skirt and disheveled blonde wig, sing Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman to a straight-faced corporate on her way to the train station one morning. And my partner, up early and on his way to the gym, came across a businessman wearing nothing but a suit jacket, chasing after a younger man in a tracksuit, while shouting and waving a beer bottle above his head.
By night the main drag, known as “The Strip” is inundated with hordes of 20-somethings who share one common purpose; partying. And with a variety of obliging venues at their disposal, it’s a rare occasion when this goal is not achieved – supplying local police with a steady stream of raucous business.
I started going out in the area when I was 17 years old and have rather fond memories of trying to get into the hot spot at the time, Mansions, or as we used to refer to it, “The Big House”. And even now I tend to see “The Cross” as a place which I have long been aware is full of crime, poverty and seedy undertakings, but which I’ve never really felt unsafe in.
In asking Constable Gillian Thomas*, a NSW Police Officer who began her career at Kings Cross Police Station in 2006 if she thinks the area is dangerous she says; “I don’t think the strip is dangerous, unless your mixed up in some sort of dodgy business. It’s off the main street … I think if you’re wandering around there, then you’re more likely to get robbed or something … but on the main street, generally, unless your picked on by a drunk guy I think it’s pretty safe because there’s so many people, and so many security guards and so many police.”
At the other end of the strip and the spectrum is Potts Point’s Macleay Street. An area renowned for its chic restaurants, boutique wine bars and gourmet delis. An inner city location where it’s not unusual to spot Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush having breakfast and where, on more than one occasion, I have seen a cat walked on a leash.
With its wide, tree-lined streets, Victorian terraces and proximity to the city, Potts Point is a suburb with a hefty price tag. With median property prices in the area just over a million dollars, securing real estate in the area most probably takes a lifetime’s work. And perhaps that’s why residents are so adamant that you don’t confuse their suburb with its drunk neighbour up the road.
Having once thought of the two areas as much of a muchness, I once falsely accused a co-worker of living in Kings Cross. She was quick to clarify, “I don’t live in Kings Cross! I live in Potts Point.” It wasn’t until I moved closer to the area some years later, that I fully understood the reproachable glare that followed her correction at the time.
Back at the markets, coffee in hand, we’ve made our way to a set of four park benches in a square formation, each facing outward to a different scene within the park. In front of us is the games area, where a middle class couple are playing Connect Four with their toddler while their newborn sleeps in an adjacent pram.
On the bench to the left of us, two old men discuss life’s great issues; legalising drugs, social etiquette, the price of bananas. To the right of us hungover hipsters try to piece together the night before over bacon and egg rolls while lycra-wearing exercises spring by sipping on freshly squeezed juice.
Behind us, one shabby homeless man hands a lighter to another who expresses his gratitude by breaking out into Burt Bacharach’s, That’s What For Friends Are For. Before long the other joins in and they sing in unison. About five minutes later a thin bald man in a grubby tracksuit comes along, crouches down beside the two crooners and asks in a low tone, “How much for a gram?” The smaller of the two seated men tells him to, “Bugger off.” But he doesn’t.
Sitting here on an average Saturday morning I’m reminded that diversity was one of the main reasons Constable Thomas told me she started her career here: “Because I could deal with lots of different people and issues from mental illness to drugs. Then you’ve got the very wealthy, so there’s robberies and break and enters down at the mansions. So I thought I’d be able to establish a lot of different skills.”
And in looking around Fitzroy Gardens this morning, I’m quite certain there aren’t too many other locations in Sydney offering a training ground as assorted as this.
*Name has been changed.