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Travel Talk

Life in the Cross is a mix of sleeze, tourism and upscale trendy neighbourhoods



By Alison Lapshinoff

Atop a narrow stairwell descending into murky darkness a portly balding man sits on a high stool smoking cigarettes.

“Come inside, have a look, have a look….”

Outside, beneath flashing neon signs, women stand in clusters; scantily clad, haggard, bored, waiting for business to pick up. On the curbside, a beggar in a drug-induced stupor mumbles incoherently as a group of young, fresh-faced backpackers wander past, seeking a hostel, eyes wide open.

Sharing storefronts with raunchy sex shops and their provocative wares on this road are unassuming florists, massage parlors, Internet cafes and bottle shops. Darlinghurst Street is Sydney, Australia’s red light district, an intoxicating combination of crime and prostitution, drug use, international backpackers and young yuppies. The area is known as Kings Cross.

In the salubrious neighbouring suburb, impeccably dressed well-to-do locals sip cappuccinos, artfully crafted by professionally trained baristas. Patios spill onto sunny, tree-lined sidewalks where patrons socialize and show off their tastefully adorned lap dogs while sampling locally baked delicacies. Potts Point, undeniably trendy and flamboyantly gay, creates an interesting juxtaposition next to the seedy underworld of Kings Cross. Despite the unlikely partnership, the two seem to co-exist in relative harmony.

Kings Cross and Potts Point are the most densely populated suburbs in all of Australia. Although radically different, they share an attitude of tolerance, whether it be toward sexuality, income, lifestyle or just the unconventional, all sorts of fascinating characters are drawn to this small corner of Australia’s largest metropolis.

The Cross began as an oasis of lavish mansions and gardens. But when the depression hit at the end of the 19th century, the mansions were divided into apartments and lower income bohemians began moving in, attracted by cheaper rent and proximity to the city. Artists and musicians were drawn by the unconventional lifestyle that was developing and soon the Cross’s reputation as a hotbed of sin, danger, tolerance and all night revelry was set in stone.

It was here that two Canadians armed with working holiday visas and oversized backpacks found a home. After a daunting search for accommodation in an unfamiliar city, a harassed agent — double parked outside the building — agreed to rent us an atrociously expensive studio flat for six months. It took all of five minutes to move in our meager belongings.

It was due to the location that our modest new home was so costly. A short stroll along steep, winding avenues lined with tastefully designed Victorian homes took us to the ocean, where parkland skirted bays of sparkling turquoise, adorned with picturesque sailboats rocking gently in the breeze. If one was to wander in the other direction they would find themselves in the curiously named suburb of Wooloomooloo, home of Harry’s Café de Wheels, a famous pie cart and a permanent fixture right on the foreshore that daily attracts literally hundreds of hungry customers seeking the classic Aussie staples of meat pies topped with mushy peas and mash or foot long hot dogs. Whether it’s businessmen on a midday lunch break or partiers seeking a grease fix after a night on the town, Harry’s always attracted a crowd.