You know things are strange when the Qantas lounge at an airport is more happening than any nightclub in what was once the party capital of Australia.

“This is f***ed!” one guy yells into the empty street.

He’s not swearing at any of his six mates who travelled 200km with him into Sydney from Singleton for a night of revelry.

He’s cursing Kings Cross – the once-rebellious dame who famously loved enticing people to stay out all night and temp fate before her parents forced her to clean up her act, sign up to 5am pilates and drink a weird green juice.

“Mate, this used to be f***in’ bonkers! People everywhere!” his disappointed mate groans.

It’s the first Saturday night since lockout laws were officially scrapped on The Golden Mile – the last precinct in Sydney to be restricted by 1.30am entry cut-offs and 3am last calls.

Maybe it’s the restrictions on dance floors and vertical drinking – imposed during the pandemic and set to be eased in just a few days in New South Wales – that have maintained the eeriness around the club district. Locals think otherwise.

“It’s a ghost town now,” one long-time resident laments while standing on the streets that once pulsed with sweaty bodies and pumping music. “It’ll be busier at breakfast.”

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Since the enforced curfews on drinking and opening hours were introduced in 2014, assaults in Kings Cross have dropped 53 per cent, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

And iconic bars and clubs in the area – once considered the red light district and party capital of Australia – have dropped with them.

A woman on a mission leads her friends down the street as she frantically looks up and down between her phone and passing shop fronts. She’s looking for a bar she used to love and is sure it’s around here. Somewhere. Maybe.

“I think it’s turned into a gym,” she says while scrunching up her face and peering through the window of an Instagrammable fitness chain.

Its neon sign branding and monochromatic fit-out make it hipper than many of the remaining clubs that have persevered through the years of lockout laws. And definitely more buzzy than the boarded-up establishments that once thrived.

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“The streets used to roar with excitement and fun,” says Kings Cross identity and former nightclub boss John Ibrahim, who inspired the 2010 Underbelly series about the area.

“With anticipation of a good night, people flocked to the precinct that seemed to cater for everyone’s appetite. You know a good time was had when the clubs closed, leaving hundreds of people disappointed – it was time to go home in the early hours of the morning. I weep for the youth of today, for they do not know what they have missed.”

It’s just after 10pm and deflated groups of bachelor and bachelorette parties mope down Darlinghurst Road in novelty costumes. Some sit on a bus bench eating burgers as they decide to call it a night.

One woman, who seemingly refuses to let the down-beat atmosphere dull her night, pukes in the gutter. This image is now a rare occurrence.

Yvonne Nguyen is running to catch the train with girlfriends to find somewhere else to party.

“We’re young, we wanna have fun, we just wanna live our best lives,” she says, almost out of breath. “Kings Cross used to be the place. If Kings Cross doesn’t wanna bring it, then we’re gonna find somewhere that can.”

Jane Cooke and Kelly White bussed in from western Sydney’s Penrith with girlfriends to see a show at the Lewis Carroll-themed Wonderland Bar – located in one of the old yellow terraces that once housed World Bar – and are now meandering the streets.

“We’re heading home now. It’s dead. We thought it’d be busier with a bit more life,” Jane says.

“A lot of the other girls have never been to the Cross before the lockouts. But there’s nothing to see.”

Across the street on Darlinghurst Road, music pumps out through the open front of 12 Taps – an expansive bar that moved in around December. Blue laser lights bounce around as the DJ, perched in a booth above the empty dance floor, spins a remix of Faker’s This Heart Attack for no one.

“This is the bloody busiest I’ve seen Kings Cross in years. The atmosphere is better,” a security guard who has worked the door of clubs in the area since the early ’90s says while looking out at the dwindling foot traffic.

Almost as a last-ditch attempt to rouse the remaining street crowd, a mid-90s Daihatsu Charade – blasting, what sounds like, an Avicii remix through the open windows – buzzes down the main drag with a bumper sticker on the back advertising the infamous Bada Bing strip joint nearby. It’s the most excitement the strip sees all night.

Robbie The Punk recalls a Sunday morning, well before the lockout laws, when there was an abandoned car left on the street with bullet holes in it.

“Living here used to be great,” he sighs.

He’s on the way home from a metal gig in Marrickville and he’s annoyed because even Mexican takeaway joint Guzman y Gomez seems to have closed up early tonight.

It seems like, at any moment, someone might recite the monologue of fading party girl Lexi Featherston from that episode of Sex And The City where she bemoans the changes of modern-day Manhattan before declaring, “No one’s fun anymore!” and then spitting, “I’m so bored I could die,” before her stiletto heel breaks and she tumbles out of a 17th-floor window.

Jane and Kelly, wearing the Alice In Wonderland costumes, dawdle by again – their spirits wilting and hearts emptier than the Maccas coke cups they’re holding.

“Still waiting for the bus,” Jane eye-rolls.

“It can’t come quick enough,” Kelly vents.

Others refuse to quit that easy. Taking advantage of the scrapped 1.30am lockout laws and the two extra hours of party time, some guys and girls and couples start lining up outside Show Girls strip club in the early hours. Their faces light up under the purple neon sign as Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda rattles through the outdoor speakers for the second time.

About 30 people are inside on the main floor, sitting in red pleather club chairs while watching one girl in black lingerie with a musical note tattooed on her left bicep work the pole.

Baby-faced guys who look like they’re 12 suck back on vape pens and puff cherry-scented steam across the stage. The girl takes pity on four dorky-looking young gentlemen and motorboats each one of them for free.

At 4am, the night is over and remaining partygoers are herded out into the street. Over the past few years, the hottest ticket in town has become the 24-hour Maccas that sits at the centre of the strip.

The Golden Mile has faded and the golden arches light the way.

Twitter, Facebook: @hellojamesweir

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