Who Will Survive In The Great Soho Sell-Off?

London

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Yesterday I walked through Soho to see what all the fuss was about – residents have been running a ‘Save Soho’ campaign ever since Soho Estates decided to rebuild sections of beloved streets. I’d seen that work on the new Crossrail link had taken its toll, but I hadn’t realised quite how much demolition was going on. Above is all that’s left of Broadwick Street. It seems odd that the nearest thing London has to an Old Quarter is being replaced wholesale. But is it the whole story? One theory is that since the tubes will start running all night in 2015 and Soho still contains London’s late night venues, it makes financial sense to connect it directly to Heathrow, therefore the dark and dingy backstreets have to go.

But this is just surmise; as with all London planning, nobody really knows what effect the large-scale demolition and rebuilding will have. Will there be a day when all the cranes come down and a brand-new neighbourhood stands in their place?

Russians, French, Italians, Jews and Chinese all helped shape Soho’s unique character. The area was a jumble of sex shops, strip clubs, textile wholesalers, bespoke tailors, screening rooms, independent record stores, live music venues and studios, gay bars, restaurants and one of the oldest street markets in London. Certain streets had individual temperaments; around Lexington Street were artists’ homes and galleries, and I’ve written a lot about Wardour Street’s homegrown film industry. The area was robust, noisy, violent and really rather strange – quite unlike anywhere else in London. It wasn’t always savoury or safe but it was full of astonishing atmosphere, so much so that the Germans shot ‘Krimi’ dramas centred on the area.

Most of the buildings which have come down were not lovely; they were postwar eyesores. Architecture was never the point here. The tailors, musicians, artists, accountants, producers, designers, writers, performers and publicans who lived in the buildings – they were the heart of the area. Nearly all have been moved out in the last three years. Some of their replacements feel completely right – I was in the independent comic shop, Gosh!, where a drawing class was being held. The strip-joint opposite had gone, I noted – kids and strippers had always inhabited the area rather incongruously.

At 25 I was photographed in an old mullioned-windowed room that had not changed in centuries. It’s now gone, but  I still hope that at least part of the Soho I knew and loved will be kept. The western half had until recently seemed more intact but now the renovation has reached Glasshouse Street and new gentrified bits like the horribly twee and pointless Ham Yard have appeared from nowhere.

Ham Yard

It’s always a bad sign when an area once associated with light industry starts sprouting big square white umbrellas and fairylights. There was never anywhere to sit outside in Soho, ever. It was an indoor society. In fact, Sohoites shunned sunlight – read Keith Waterhouse’s marvellous novel ‘Maggie Muggins’ for a sense of this. Suddenly, now the narrow streets are packed with outdoor salad-opportunities, as if it was the South of France and not a city where you’re best off taking an umbrella on even a sunny day.

As entire city blocks simply vanish overnight I wonder how much you can replace before finding yourself with something different. But if you believe in the power of psychogeography, perhaps the strange and wonderful denizens of the past will find a way to reinhabit the area. At the moment it’s hard to see how that can happen, because characters make a place and the denizens themselves won’t be who they were – they’ll be rich tourists wandering around looking for the ‘old’ Soho, just as people wander about Portobello looking for its old spirit and finding nothing but cupcakes shops.

If people build places and the new migrants are just visitors, they won’t be populating and adding to the past, they’ll be cruising around it with cameras, looking for sights to tick off on their list of Places To Visit In Europe. Here are some shots pointed out to me by old pal Porl Cooper that catch the spirit of times gone. The rest can be found here.

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8 comments on “Who Will Survive In The Great Soho Sell-Off?”

  1. Steve2 says:

    Rather than replacing and upscaling soho the developers should have flattened and replaced oxford street from the old Bourne and Hollingsworth building to Tottenham Court Road- its awful.

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    Sadly this picture repeats itself across all of our major cities. The deadly triumvirate of Developers, Planners and Bankers seem to take Wilde’s dictum of ‘knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing’ as a template for the future.

    Communities developed around common industries, races, religions or geographic advantages. Over decades these developed a distinct character and sense of place, but all of it depended on the economics of plentiful work and cheap accommodation. Where I live in the North East the themes from 1860 to 1960 were coal mining, shipbuilding and heavy industry, although the biggest industries a century before were chemicals, ceramics and glassmaking.

    On the outskirts of Newcastle is an area called the Ouseburn – an old tributary of the Tyne which until recently consisted of Victorian warehouses and abandoned factories, light industry sheds and scrapyards. It was the sort of seedy area regularly used in movies like ‘Get Carter’ and TV series such as Spender and Wire in the Blood.

    In the early 1980’s a local entrepreneur took advantage of cheap rents and opened a bar and live music venue which became quite a success in a previously insalubrious corner of the city; nearby some artists opened a studio and a theatre group set up studios – very quickly the area became ‘sexy’, visited by students and the arty set, starting a vibe which resulted in upmarket art galleries and restaurants and more recently the ‘National Centre for Children’s Books’.

    Residential development followed like a balloon on a string; apartments with balconies, investment properties and small hotels. Rough and ready pubs began offering cask ales, craft beers and tapas.

    It all looked great until a bunch of the new tenants decided to complain about the noise from the live music venue that had started the whole thing in the first place and attempt to close it down. As the Americans say: ‘Go figure’.

    Unfettered development removes the very character that it feeds upon – its like a tree that devours its own roots and leaves sterile ground. In 25 years Soho will be a name on a map and a footnote in the history books.

  3. John Griffin says:

    This has largely happened in my old university town of Nottingham; the edgy, sooty boozer-infested town of the 60s and 70s has given way in part to decay and in part to absurd gentrification.
    It would be ridiculous now to imagine being in a smoky left-wing folk club (The Scheme)and the act interrupted on stage(by the Steve-Bell lookalike artist Paul Waplington) to announce the Chilean counter-revolution (the USA is bombing Allende in the presidential palace) which killed the music but provoked serious discussion.
    It was a world and a culture away, and I wonder how much of what is left in Soho exists only in the perceptions of Admin? I know my wife looked askance at me walking along Parliament Street when i told her the above, and also how we regularly came out of the place to find police lurking and taking pix of the ‘reds’.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    There’s one upside. If they destroy enough the tourists will stop coming and that will remove the cause of one of Admin’s favourite rants. (Please note the sarcasm here.)

  5. admin says:

    I don’t mind tourists at all, Helen. The problem is simply one of overcrowding in a small nexus of the city where it has become unviable and physically dangerous to leave all the stations open (which is why Covent Garden now has to shut during the day).

  6. Helen Martin says:

    The Covent Garden tube station is closed during the day? I am constantly amazed at the way Brits are manipulated by police and such. The station is closed because there are too many people wanting to go there?! Where is the logic in that? And no wonder tourist crowds figure in your rants.

  7. snowy says:

    Covent Garden is a little stump of a station, no escalators, just lifts so the passenger capacity/hr is limited. Adequate before CG became a tourist hot-spot but L. Square station is only a 250-300m walk away.

    [There is a spiral staircase intended for emergency evacuation, 193 steps from bottom to top. Quite clang-y from memory.]

    [And a ghost.]

  8. Helen Martin says:

    The guess here was that it must be a small station, but that really does sound difficult to manage safely. They must have had a limited amount of land to work with to have built it that way. To say nothing of the ghost. Thank you, Snowy. If there were another opportunity to physically meet the inhabitants of this blog-site, Snowy would certainly top my list.

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