Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city's famed arts-and-sleaze district is set for major redevelopment. But all the movie-star advocates and nostalgia in the world can't preserve what's already gone.
London has a new weapon in the fight to preserve neighborhood character: Benedict Cumberbatch. The actor has joined a host of other British stars, including Idris Elba, Pete Townshend, Andy Serkis, and Eddie Izzard, in a new campaign to “save” central London’s most vibrant older neighborhood, Soho. Fronted by Stephen Fry, the campaign wants to prevent the historic, mainly low-rise area from filling up with “shiny, glossy buildings—like Singapore Airport.” In Tuesday’s Standard newspaper, Fry lavished praise on the area saying: “It’s such a magical place, there’s no one else [sic] like it in the world. I don’t think anywhere else quite has this Bohemian atmosphere.”
Faced with new developments that could demolish a cultural landmark and destroy one of the best-known entertainment sites in the quarter, the Save Soho campaign, which has put together this basic video, wants to declare the entire area an official "heritage zone." This could preserve cultural venues and stop current speculative development. But in truth, Soho has already undergone radical change in the past few decades: Could the campaign be too little too late?
The area is certainly unique. First built up west of London’s heart in the late 17th century, Soho (the name is a hunting cry, not an acronym) was initially a failure—it failed to keep the wealthy residents for which its two grand garden squares had been intended. Instead, it quickly became a destination for immigrants, particularly Huguenot refugees escaping persecution in France. (Soho Square is still home to London’s last remaining French Protestant Church.) By the 19th century, Soho had slid down the scale to become a slum. Scientists first connected the spread of cholera to water contamination by mapping an epidemic here. Karl Marx and his family lived in attic rooms here the early 1850s and saw two of the children die.
Come the mid 20th century (by which time things had much improved), Soho had become a bohemian quarter, a place where figures like Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon, and Quentin Crisp would hang out—one of the few places in London where you could buy such suspicious exotica as garlic or Italian coffee. It was also a red light district, with a dense cluster of sex shops and clip joints springing up by the mid 1970s. By the 1990s, Soho was morphing into London’s gay village, one of those rare places where same sex-couples could enjoy the luxury of holding hands without being beaten up. (Though this didn’t stop the tragic bombing of a gay pub here by a neo-Nazi in 1999, killing three.) As one of the few places in London with 24-hour businesses, Soho has also long been, and continues to be, a nightlife center. Before London’s club boom of the early 1990s, the city's tiny club clique used to be referred to as the "Soho 1,000." A Soho café even inspired this song by the Britpop band Pulp about people too wasted to go home looking for somewhere to kill time.
This raffish character has been changing. Soho rents have long been high, and film, TV, and post-production companies increasingly dominate the area, just as the small brothels (advertised by signs reading MODEL) have been disappearing. Many of the bars are owned by the same major pub companies, which could be why many of them aren’t very good. While the once-exotic Italian delis and a few peep shows remain, some of the more interesting specialist shops have also disappeared.
New plans for Soho could be the tipping point that changes it forever. London’s new Crossrail system may mean that one of London’s best arthouse cinemas is knocked down to build a station, while a legendary dance and performance club, Madame JoJo’s, has been approved for demolition, as have its neighbors, a gay bar and a currently unoccupied cabaret. This is one of the best-known sites in the area—formerly called the Raymond Revuebar, its old neon sign now protected as a monument. To make thing worse, one of Central London’s last weird little live music venues, the 12 Bar Club, where Adele and Jeff Buckley held early shows, is being forced to relocate. What, people are wondering, is going to be left?
For some, fighting these changes is flogging a dead horse. Whether you blame the people running its sex businesses or government persecution of their right to work, there’s no denying that the old Soho was a place where a lot of people—both workers and customers—were ripped off and exploited. Things weren’t always pretty here: Madame Jojo’s lost its license last fall because some of its bouncers attacked a customer with baseball bats. For some, there’s a danger that nostalgia for Soho’s seedy past only ends up aestheticizing exploitation.
Others, including the actor Rupert Everett in this impassioned piece for The Guardian, see a feigned concern with sex-worker welfare as a shallow excuse for grabbing the premises they work in for development. People whose well being has been steadfastly ignored are suddenly concern-trolled because they’re sitting on something worth selling.
Personally, I’m in the latter camp. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that any major city undergoing change must be in want of some old git there to tell you that you’ve missed all the good times. At risk of being that git, I remember so many interesting times in Soho that it breaks my heart to think people in the future may not enjoy the same. I remember the old illegal late night bars under sex shops, where you needed a password to get in and sit on garden furniture. I recall the old wood-paneled pubs (which are still there) filled with cravat-wearing, whisky-sodden monuments to another era (who aren’t). I remember the forever-in-the-closet 1960s drag legend who cornered the 19-year-old me to proclaim out of the blue, “You can do it like me, darling, but I’ve SCRUBBED FLOORS!”
Cities aren’t just so many square feet of space from which profit can be squeezed, they are the repositories of people’s memories, the often narrow spaces in which people can create a life they have chosen rather than were given. Soho’s landlords may have the legal right to cash in, but nobody really wants a city that's been eviscerated by greed.