So Long, Soho
Londoners should never be nostalgic about their city. We know that if you go away on holiday for a fortnight you’re liable to come back and find your favourite pub gone. It’s just the way things work here. I can’t think of any city that has changed so much, so consistently, over the last sixty years.
But there’s a difference between the gradual transformation of an area and its spontaneous combustion. I worked in Soho the whole of my adult life, and like all of my fellow Sohoites I still can’t take in the speed of its wholesale transformation. We knew that the massive Crossrail project would tear up certain streets for a while (well, five or six years) but assumed life would go on around it, as it does in cities like New York and Tokyo.
Instead, the upheaval nicely coincided with hurtling property prices to provide a once-in-a-lifetime dream opportunity for developers.
Although technically bordered by four streets, Soho is as much a state of mind as a neighbourhood. For many years it had a large council estate in its centre, and made bits that didn’t belong to it (like Denmark Street and the top of Charing Cross Road, technically part of Seven Dials) honorary members. In turn, it had bits that didn’t belong – like the wholesale schmutter shops from the North side of Oxford Street.
For such a tiny area it still has a complexity of zones, roughly four quadrants that include artistic, manufacturing, fashion and dining parts, along with several garden squares, theatres and churches. It once had a hat warehouse and a soup factory, a street of movie distributors, music shops, a market, a gay neighbourhood, a French quarter, an Italian quarter. It had pubs like the Helvetia (used by typesetters), the Bath House, the Cambridge, the King’s Head Dive Bar, the Crown & Apple Tree, the Bricklayer’s Arms, the George and the Intrepid Fox, all of which are now gone, mostly turned into fast food joints.
But this was just the start; coming up we have the destruction of Denmark Street, the closure of The Yard and Madame Jo-Jo’s, the conversion of whole streets into ‘luxury loft living’, the high rents which force short-lease venues to be owned by chains.
Don’t think this is just another article moaning about the good old days of Soho; go down there today and you’ll see that when the hoardings come down it will be radically different. If new instant-areas like Ham Yard are anything to go by, Soho will shortly complete its transformation into a suburban ‘shopping experience’ quarter. Part of the area’s appeal for developers is that the buildings go almost as far down as up; they have floors under the road including underground car parks, and former stables at their rears, which means they can build behind.
The building I owned in Bateman Street once had a glass dance floor and a cinema. Now it is being chopped into ‘luxury’ oligarch hutches, and any venue likely to disturb the sleep of millionaires is being eased out by Westminster Council, who is eagerly stamping on them for the smallest public order infringements.
Perhaps it is all just parter of a longer cycle. The bankers who move in will bemoan the lack of character the area now has, which they brought with them, and move on.
At the moment, the hot money is moving on Holborn for gentrification…