How East Soho Lost Its Crown
Coming out of ‘Skyfall’ recently into rainy Beak Street was like still being in the film – the neon shop God’s Own Junkyard was having a party and its colours were striping the puddles with rainbows, fractured by passing taxis. people were standing outside The Sun And Thirteen Cantons drinking, and the area’s old warehouses glowed with small galleries and restaurants. The West quadrant of Soho has recently reclaimed its artistic history – it was long the home of artists, but had been swamped by post-production houses for years. Now they’ve moved out and the independents have returned.
Once, being in Soho meant going to the East part – Frith St, Dean St and Wardour St – but since the advent of chain yogurt shops and bars the cool vibe has moved away. Old Compton Street is no longer the sexual omnishambles it used to be but a rather boring street of cafes. The change has occurred because the old postwar property magnates reached the end of their leases, and Westminster Council finally did something about the dodgy cab companies and drug dealers working out of basements. But in their efforts to clean up the area, they let the chains move in and sanitise the streets beyond recognition.
Opposite Mrs Henderson’s Windmill is now a huge block-wide hole where until very recently Charlie Chester’s Casino still stood – you can see it in the film ‘Absolute Beginners’ – now it’s to be a hotel. At least Manzi’s, the old fish restaurant which few realised was also a little hotel, is now both once more under the name of St John’s.
This is the transmutative nature of Soho, of course – Gerrard Street, now home to Chinatown, was once full of French hotels and restaurants like the Hotel De Bourgogne – whose mosaic entrance you can still see as you enter the London Chinatown restaurant.
I don’t feel nostalgic about losing the area’s unsafe feeling, although it was fun hearing the imaginative call-outs of the girls in the shop doorways. But I do resent Japanese T-shirt shops replacing cafes which had been owned for generations by the same Italian families.
The quirky indie stores and galleries have now shifted over to Earlham Street and beyond into Covent Garden, around King Street and Monmouth Street, where the narrow alleys are suited to small tenancies. Coming next is a council plan to reconstruct Berwick Street as a kind of Marylebone High Street. Out will go the market stalls – the few which remain are hardly used – and in come expensive bijou shops. And so Central London will lose its last proper market.
In Barcelona, where I’m heading tomorrow, the mayor prevented over twenty Covent Garden sized wrought-iron-and-glass food markets from being torn down. By having to keep them, the city’s way of eating stayed unchanged. Fresh vegetables are a novelty in much of Spain, but in this city the supermarkets were never able to gain a foothold; the result is that the entire population buys everything fresh.
Not so in Central London, which now only has the horrible rip-off Whole Foods faux-markets. And yet all around the city every single neighbourhood has fresh produce markets in its working class backstreets. Near me there are still pie and eel shops and fish stalls where the produce has been caught the same day.
Meanwhile in Soho, the next to go will be the centuries-old fashion wholesalers around Berwick Street, with their sloping floored buildings and windows filled with peculiar-looking handmade suits. If you want to read about the old Soho I can recommend Judith Walkowitz’s ‘Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London’, although I warn you that its forensic detail is better suited to the researcher than the casual reader.