Sydney nightlife goes from wild to mild

Editor’s Note: Matt Khoury is a Sydney-based journalist who was raised in the city’s west. The opinions expressed in this commentary from March 2016 are his.

CNN  — 

Not so long ago in Sydney, Oxford Street’s “pink strip” and Kings Cross’ Golden Mile were home to a thriving mix of live music venues and clubs. But now it’s hard to find late-night pizza in the Harbour City, let alone a dance floor.

Travelers walking the streets of Australia’s biggest city might wonder where all the people are: late-night foot traffic has decreased by more than four-fifths in some districts, according to a City of Sydney report released in 2015.

Two years ago, following the Kings Cross deaths of two young men in alcohol-related assaults, the New South Wales state government introduced “lockout laws,” banning entry to venues after 1:30 a.m. and bar service after 3 a.m. in the “exclusion zone.”

This area includes the central business district and extends to Kings Cross, Oxford Street and Surry Hills on the eastside, as well as the tourist precinct, Darling Harbour, in the west.

But gamblers can breathe easy: Star Casino has been granted immunity from the late-night laws, while another 16 gambling machine dens have been made lockout-exempt – so long as punters sip on coffee.

Alcohol-related assaults have since decreased by about a quarter in the “exclusion zone,” according to local crime statistics, but increased elsewhere. Some, such as lockout law campaigner Rob McEwan, believe a “silent majority” supports the intervention that brings Sydney into line with bar closures in California (2 a.m.), London (3 a.m.) and New York (4 a.m.) – albeit at odds with other Australian cities.

But more vocal locals reckon Sydney’s loose liberty and late-night glamor have been unfairly targeted as a result of two tragic events on city streets, as lockouts have had a calamitous effect on the city’s nightlife.

Iconic gay venues such as The Exchange and The Flinders have closed their doors. In Kings Cross, clubs to disappear from the nightscape include The Goldfish Bowl, The Bourbon, Soho, Trademark and the award-winning Hugo’s, as well as a string of late bars in the ‘hood.

Forget red lights in the new Sydney.

The state liquor authority closed the two remaining strip clubs after undercover police allegedly found drugs at the venues, as well as alcohol being served irresponsibly. Police even raided a Paddington bistro for writing a tongue-in-cheek “free wine” reference (preservative-free, that is) on their chalkboard, saying it promoted binge drinking and anti-social behavior.

“Compared to the Sydney I knew and loved before, it is well on the way to losing its vibrancy and diverse culture,” says Mark Gerber, owner of surviving live music venue, Oxford Art Factory.

“The lockout zone is becoming like [1980s] East Berlin.”

Hospitality staff, musicians and deejays, as well as retail and food outlets, are feeling the effects of revelers migrating elsewhere, Gerber says.

Surry Hills and Darlinghurst were “undergoing a renaissance, where urban sub-cultures co-existed. There were new restaurants, small bars, burlesque clubs and creatives,” he says. “But lockout laws have taken away much of that.”

Martin O’Sullivan, owner of The Grasshopper, a small laneway bar in the city, says, “Not many good artists are staying in Sydney – they’re going overseas, to Melbourne or to Byron Bay.”

No easy solutions

A chord of local discontent was struck and a social media campaign elicited by a February 8,000-word essay on LinkedIn by Matt Barrie titled “Would the last person in Sydney please turn the lights out” that claimed fun was now illegal in the rule-bound Emerald City.

NSW premier Mike Baird then bought in with a Facebook post defending his government’s laws, saying Sydney was “as vibrant as ever” and it was his “moral obligation” to keep Sydney safe.

But the #casinomike hashtag soon raged on Twitter, his government was accused of hypocrisy for raking in up to 50% of gambling revenue from venues and more than 10,000 Sydneysiders peacefully took to the streets to protest “the death of our city.”

Tyson Koh, part of the Keep Sydney Open campaign, concedes something had to be done when 27,000 young revelers (the legal drinking age in Australia is 18) descended on Kings Cross on a standard Saturday night.

“But there are better solutions [than lockouts] that take in factors about what makes a great city,” he says. “What happens at night is crucial to the city’s identity, and they’ve created a big void in our identity.

“[Travelers] want to do more in Sydney than take a photo of the Harbour Bridge or do the Bondi to Bronte coastal walk.”

The lockout laws are currently under independent, government-commissioned review, with findings due later this year. But for Sydney’s nightlife, it may be too late.

Matt Khoury is a Sydney-based freelance journalist. He’s the former editor of CNNGo/CNN Travel Sydney.