Who Will Survive In The Great Soho Sell-Off?
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.
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.