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'Gutter confessions': The rise and fall of Sydney's nightlife scene

It was once the most notorious suburb in the country, but scenes of pimps and prostitutes, raving party-goers and heaving nightclubs in Kings Cross, Sydney, are now a distant memory.

They have been replaced by much quieter restaurants, wine bars, and the odd empty storefront as the iconic area closes in on a crucial moment in a fight to revamp itself and bring back the foot traffic.

But it’s a process haunted by its past reputation for debauchery and delinquency.

Few people understood the Kings Cross of the previous decade better than photographer Pat Stevenson who has spent the past 15 years shooting Australia’s nightlife scene.

“I started shooting in 2007, cause I used to like going out to the nightclubs and I soon realised I could get in for free if I took my camera along,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

Pretty soon venues started paying him to take photos at their clubs and he was spending two to three nights a week in Kings Cross and Oxford Street capturing the scene and shooting at various bars and nightclubs that no longer exist.

“It’s just wild to think that in one night you could do five nightclubs, I don’t think there’s five nightclubs in Sydney at the moment,” he joked.

Party goers out the front of club Candy's Apartment.
Popular clubs such as Candy's Apartment fostered some well-known musical talent. Source: Pat Stevenson

‘Sydney was so wild and fun’

During lockdown Mr Stevenson has been going through old photos and is in the process of putting together a book to illustrate the rise and fall of the once infamous nightlife of Kings Cross.

“I’ve met some of my best friends on the floor of a nightclub at 3am,” he said, reminiscing on an experience that’s not so readily available for young adults today.

After posting some old photos online recently, nostalgic social media users recalled the good, the bad and the ugly of Kings Cross in years gone by.

“Miss those days,” one person commented.

“Sydney was so wild and fun back in the 2000s,” another said.

While some acknowledged the violence, many lamented the hit to the music scene as venues closed down.

“I hope Sydney can slowly get a bit more vibrant at night again. It’s quite disappointing. Lots of good clubs with different music genres are all gone,” one person wrote.

One club alone, called Candy's Apartment, was responsible for fostering successful acts including What So Not, Hayden James, Cassian, Frames, Alison Wonderland and used to host bands including Cut Copy, Miami Horror, and PNAU, Mr Stevenson explained.

A young girl smiles at a homeless man.
A friend of Pat's with a resident rough sleeper who was "part of the furniture". Source: Pat Stevenson

Of course, his camera captured plenty of moments that earned Kings Cross its reputation for alcohol-fuelled violence. Incidents that were “memorable, but for all the wrong reasons”.

“I witnessed a stabbing in the Cross, he almost bled to death in front of me – and my instinct what just to take his photo,” Mr Stevenson told Yahoo News Australia.

“Something had to be done, there was a lot fights.”

It was a crackdown on anti-social behaviour and the introduction of lockout laws in 2014 which ushered in changes that saw Kings Cross irrevocably reformed.

It came after the deaths of two young men, Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie, who in separate incidents, while minding their own business, were coward punched and killed in the Cross.

The New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) found the laws reduced non-domestic assaults by 13 per cent in the CBD, however research by independent analysts say the number is actually lower.

Film crew watch on as police subdue someone.
The Cross was well-known for violent episodes. Source: Pat Stevenson
Blood seen on the pavement.
A crackdown on anti-social behaviour ultimately spelled the death of the nightclub scene. Source: Pat Stevenson

The lockout laws had the strong endorsement of politicians, police as well as doctors and emergency service workers but weighed heavily on businesses that relied on late night trade.

“I lost a lot of my work as soon as the lockouts came in ... I lost about 80 per cent of my [photography] work,” Mr Stevenson said.

“The clubs just couldn’t afford to have me on because no one was going out any more and it didn’t make sense for me to document a night when it’s empty.”

He soon transitioned to shooting events like weddings and going on tour with musicians to shoot gigs.

The new plan to rebuild Kings Cross

Just like Mr Stevenson, the suburb of Kings Cross has had to transform itself as local businesses sought to rebuild the area.

“Since the lockouts, and you’re talking five years ago, the area was pretty despondent and no one really knew how to come together as a business community,” says Carrington Brigham, the chair of the Potts Point Partnership.

The group which represents local businesses in Kings Cross found that foot traffic had fallen by 80 per cent in the area, according to City of Sydney research conducted in 2016.

“The outside world viewed Kings Cross as a now ghost town because it was absent of a party-like atmosphere,” Mr Brigham told Yahoo News Australia.

Businesses have since been working to lure people back to the area by offering fine dining, wine bars and boutique shopping outlets, as well as events such as an Art Deco festival planned for the end of this year.

“We have new wine bars that can open until 1am ... and a cafe cosmopolitan lifestyle now that encompasses day trade and night trade,” Mr Brigham said.

Local stakeholders are working with the Committee for Sydney to develop a precinct plan for Kings Cross as part of a grant that has been approved by the City of Sydney.

With more details expected to be released in September, the hope is the process will lead to a recommendation for government to purchase the Minerva Theatre, which hasn’t operated as a theatre for decades, to create a new anchor entertainment venue to draw people in.

The Minerva Theatre, opened in 1939 and renamed the Metro Kings Cross in 1952, has a long association with the nightlife of Kings Cross. Source: The Dictionary of Sydney/Facebook
The Minerva Theatre opened in 1939 and was renamed the Metro Kings Cross in 1952. Source: The Dictionary of Sydney/Facebook

Kings Cross is stuck between its past and its future

As if still stuck between its past and future, Kings Cross can’t quite seem to shake its former reputation.

When the NSW state government announced earlier this year that the lockout laws would be rolled back, Kings Cross was singled out as the only suburb where they would remain in place.

It was a decision that had the country’s only national newspaper, The Australian, wondering “What is it that scares so many people about the place?”

A parliamentary committee which recommended the laws be rolled back was reportedly concerned the Cross was “not yet sufficiently changed to warrant a complete reversal” with one politician saying: “Kings Cross cannot be allowed to return to how it was.”

But for the revellers who populated it prior to the lockout laws, something important has been lost in Australian culture with the demise of Sydney’s nightlife.

The photos of Mr Stevenson – a collection he has dubbed Gutter Confessions – shows what he calls “the last years of the era of Australian nightlife”.

“Some pictures are confronting, some are visceral, some are lighthearted, but all of them are real and give us a chance to reflect on the experiences we had before the Nanny Nation decided to take our playground away.”

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