How Sydney Got Locked Out by Politics, Casinos, and Billion-Dollar Bullshit

Somehow good intentions and big money have shaped a city few of us are proud of.

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02 March 2016, 1:34am

Images by Ben Thomson

There's so many stink lines coming off this thing it's hard to know where to begin. So let's go back to the start, when two young men were randomly attacked and killed in the early evening of a night in Kings Cross. The "one-punch" deaths of Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie, both 18, both killed before 10:30 PM, resulted in Sydney getting some of the most draconian drinking laws in the country.

The laws were announced and passed within 21 days, leaving little time for coherent opposition, civil or otherwise. Not that anyone was bothered. Sydney had never had much of a formal nightlife. We'd suffered under ham-fisted licensing regulation right up until 2008, which placed prohibitively high costs on gaining the right to serve alcohol, all but eliminating the proliferation of small bars and a diverse night time culture.

Whereas Melbourne turned out in force to protest the proposed laws for their city, Sydney just didn't. In truth, this may have been because they seemed justified. The Cross had long been a bloodbath and something had to change. Remember the time star footballer Jarryd Hayne was shot at by bikies out the front of Kings Cross McDonald's following an earlier scuffle at a pub? Or the time the loyal patrons of a kebab store stood in the blood of a Polynesian man whose throat had been slit from behind by a rival gang member? In any case, I remember the time I almost killed a kid from the housos who kicked my friend in the face.

The reasons for the violence were painfully obvious. For as long as I had been alive it was the only street in an entire city of five million where a gay-fearing man could get a drink after midnight (the other option being Oxford St). So many colours and creeds, travelling all the way from far-flung suburbia, housing estates, north shore mansions, beaches, football clubs and bikie clubs to sink piss, eat pingaz and smoke ice. The potential for disaster was obvious, and that was before you considered trying to get home. As you might know, trains stopped at midnight resulting in 45-minute waits for taxis, which often gave way to brawling.

Few people felt the desire to stand up for the Cross. The violence was shocking, to the extent that nearby St Vincent's hospital was specially equipped to deal with the head traumas that would so reliably fill up their emergency department on weekends. Lockout laws were supposed to solve all this by preventing the service of alcohol after 3 AM, lock patrons out of pubs and clubs after 1:30 AM, and end the sale of booze from bottle shops at 10.

Things got complicated when the lockout laws coincided with plans for the biggest casino-and-apartment complex in the city's history, belonging to billionaire and mid-morning brawler James Packer. The complex, called Barangaroo, was to be built a stone's throw from Kings Cross and yet it was inexplicably given immunity from the lockout laws. So too was the nearby Star Casino in Pyrmont, not ten minutes away by taxi, and currently the home of the highest rates of violence in the city.

Inner-city Sydney, which takes in Kings Cross, and runs from the southern side of the harbour foreshore as far south as Redfern, as far east as Bondi, and Marrickville in the west, has been subject to unprecedented property investment over the past five years. Much of it is foreign, along with plenty coming from homegrown millionaires. Yet it is within this same region that the entire city's culture and nightlife are contained. And obviously when it comes to investment vs. culture, there's no confusion over which the authorities favour.

"It's all to do with planning. The councils and governments have made so much money from converting every available commercial and industrial space into apartments, because it is the highest yield per square meter," says Dave Abram, owner of Freda's in Chippendale.

"But cities need to have night districts and commercial districts all through. Melbourne has done this very successfully. They have active social spaces all through their city that run late into the night. It spreads the crowds out and gives people the option to avoid the dickheads at the known late night spots, say like the Cross in Sydney or the Casino."

Right now inner city Sydney is beginning to resemble something of a Monaco of Asia; a playground for bankers and the global elite, complete with upmarket apartment complexes funnelling the super rich into 24-hour casinos. The government stands to earn at least $640 million a year once both are open, and who knows how much in rates and taxes from property that's been freed up in the process. China's elite have thrown head-spinning coin at a series of mansions lining the harbour. They've also invested in inner-city construction to the tune of $6 billion.

With the Cross shut down, the area looks certain to be turned into apartments, giving popular rise to a number of odd yet increasingly plausible theories around the city.

"The developers and councils are in because they don't want it to be late trading, they want it to become residential," says Sav Aristidis, owner of the Five Burroughs Wine Bar in The Cross. "Well lo-and-behold, the Goldfish has closed down the road here and it's been sold off and it's gonna be floors and floors of residences. So yeah, it looks like our conspiracy theory is coming to fruition."

Another of these conspiratorial notions has sprung up around the property investment and development website, Domain.com.au. The story goes that revenue at the Sydney Morning Herald has been propped up in no small way by their thriving real estate website, which provides an interesting looking glass to examine Fairfax's coverage of the city.

"Running a newspaper is a pretty marginal business so Fairfax makes most of its cash out of Domain," says Professor of Urban Planning at Sydney University, Peter Phipps. "I just don't think there's probably the scrutiny in the media there used to be about some of these issues."

Strangely spun articles have been popping up all over the place at inopportune times, such as this one on the morning of the Keep Sydney Open march, citing a poll that found two thirds of the state were in favour of the lockout laws. The poll was soon revealed to have only asked 358 people across NSW, with the results bizarrely incongruous with follow-up polls, including this one in conservative tabloid, The Daily Telegraph . Here, 8600 residents were queried on lockouts and found over 90 percent were in favour of overturning the laws.

Had you headed down to The Star casino last September you would have found all of the invested parties in the one room. The Thomas Kelly Foundation's gala fundraising dinner was held at and sponsored by Star Casino, and spoken at by the likes of current Premier (Casino) Mike Baird, Police Chief Andrew Scipione, radio personality Ray Hadley, and others. Adding stink to the saga were revelations last week that Thomas Kelly's father, the sole employee listed for the foundation, had paid himself over half of the funds raised so far, pocketing himself a cool $125k. Both Thomas Kelly and Mike Baird are old boys of the exclusive Parramatta Private School, The King's School.

The many issues and grievances were spectacularly and inadvertently brought to a head earlier this month after Premier Mike Baird took to Facebook to defend lockouts. The post, which labelled opposition to the laws as "part of a growing hysteria" was besieged by over 16,000 antagonistic comments, inadvertently galvanising opposition to the laws and giving way to a 15 to 30,0000-strong march the following week. Baird was also revealed to have manipulated statistics in his post, further fuelling conspiracy theorists.

For someone who's lived in this city for 28 years, it represents the final stinking chapter in a lifetime of bullshit. In my time here I've watched the city I grew up in have a whole new city built over it. As I sit and write this I look at the skyline and watch dozens of metal flamingos stacking high rises and fresh apartment blocks.

They've done this at the expense of a lot of things I consider important—affordable housing, music venues, historical buildings, and space. Just space. No real reason has been given, other than "change is inevitable." To that I say, not all change is progress. This city is going backwards.

I've watched the cost of living become so prohibitively high the only people I know who can afford it are the wealthy young-professional offspring of Australia's middle and upper classes (of which I am one, more or less). In the most abundant land on earth, in a time when technology has theoretically made living easier than ever before, we are creating a society that is less equal and more stratified, at the behest of bankers, foreign investors, and speculative home buyer's bottom lines.

Rich people complain a lot. They have complained pubs and clubs out of existence, and their complaints have been upheld because there's more money in property and apartment blocks than good times. This is not about violence. If they wanted to cure violence, they'd be out in Bourke, the Tweed, and Mt Druitt, and every other out-of-sight town where men beat the shit out of each other for something to do on a Friday or Saturday night.

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