How East Soho Lost Its Crown

London, Observatory

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.

4 comments on “How East Soho Lost Its Crown”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Is the dislike about chain shops a dislike of chains, a dislike of the decor, or the nature of their wares? The loss of fresh food I really understand, and not liking the pastel or brilliant neon is understandable because it is so obviously foreign, but not liking, say, frozen yoghurt or hamburgers is not reasonable. My rural hometown had zoning regulations that forbade chain restaurants for a very long time but they finally lifted it (threat of a Charter of Rights lawsuit?) and I didn’t notice anyone going out of business. London is different, I suppose, but the people should be able to have any form of food or entertainment they like provided it doesn’t break any of the usual considerations. Just sigh deeply and move on, Admin.

  2. Nigel says:

    All places change, but it truly breaks my heart that Soho is rapidly becoming a theme park version of itself, and places like Old Compton Street will soon ressemble any other high street. Old long-established businesses are being forced to close, to be replaced by fly-by-nights who have no conception of community or individuality. A prime example is Jimmy’s, the basement Greek restaurant on Frith Street. After fifty-odd years, they closed about eighteen months ago. Since then two separate businesses have occupied the premises, and each has failed.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Jimmy the Greek – sounds like Damon Runyon. It was there for 50 years and closed because…? Presumably people weren’t coming any more. Could the stairs have become a problem for the older segment of the clientele, now a larger % of the clientele? Maintaining a restaurant is not easy because people often go with current menu fads “just for a change” and don’t come back. Opening a business in a basement location is definitely an uphill climb (sorry about that) and requires a large monetary backstop. I imagine they didn’t have enough. I agree that it is painful to see a favourite business go under, only to be replaced by something with no staying power. I don’t care much for the Macdonald’s and such, even though I have been known to patronise them occasionally. Patronise the locals seems to be the only good answer and that often isn’t enough if the taxes and other costs have risen beyond the ability of the firm to absorb.

  4. jan says:

    its colours were striping the puddles with rainbows aaaah lovely (and i’m not taking the mick) i do miss Soho never really liked the area that much when i worked it but its one of those places you look back on and realise how interesting, funny, unpleasant and great it could be. Nowhere better on a friday night even if u were working and the rest of the world was looking forward to a weekend.

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