London’s seediest district hints at some of the ways the capital is changing
Sadly, Madame Gogos
IN 1847 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels earnestly debated the failings of capitalism in rooms above a pub at 20 Great Windmill Street, in Soho. Some 170 years later, patrons of Be at One, the chain which has taken over the venue, have somewhat different problems to worry about. After making their way past a bouncer, and through throngs of people to a bar dimly lit by brown lights, drinkers navigate a cocktail menu around 20 pages long, with eye-watering prices. “I don’t like paying £8.50 ($13) for a drink,” admits Josh Rogers, an American tourist. “But I’m happy to pay more if the area is vibrant and fun,” he adds, slightly despondently.
Soho, an area of about half a square kilometre in the West End, has long been an anomaly in central London. At the turn of the 20th century it was full of French, German, Polish and Italian immigrants; just before the first world war one writer remarked that “when the respectable Londoner wants to feel devilish he goes to Soho”. Full of pretty Georgian houses and dark side streets, it resisted development in the 1970s, and it remains a red-light district: around 40 flats are still used for prostitution. Film and television companies cluster above bars and restaurants.
But the area has become far less gritty. Fewer prostitutes operate there; most shops selling pornography have closed down. At the end of November Madame Jojo’s, a burlesque bar, had its licence revoked, after a fight took place outside it, and the bar’s security team were captured on CCTV wielding baseball bats. The club had already been approved for redevelopment by the Soho Estates, one of two large landowners in the area, but the incident speeded up its closure. Denmark Street, known as Tin Pan Alley because of the number of music shops along it, is due to be turned into a street of flats and pop-up shops. A former police station which was empty for 13 years is currently being turned into an apartment block.
In part these changes reflect how Britain itself has become more cosmopolitan. In the 1960s Soho was full of food markets selling rarities such as avocados and globe artichokes, recalls Matthew Bennett, who has lived there for five decades. Now you can get such goods “at a Waitrose in Penzance,” he sniffs. Many quirky shops were on long-term leases which have since expired, while in some parts of the West End getting a licence to open a late-night bar has become harder. The internet has chipped away at the sex industry. In 2007 the local council cracked down on “clip joints”—where men are fooled into paying for titillation that never happens.
An increased demand for residential properties in central London has speeded up these changes. Since 2003 the West End has lost around 180,000 square metres of office floorspace as developers turn offices into flats. Increasing numbers of rich families with younger children live in the city centre, an area that many would have shunned two decades ago. Between 2003 and 2013 the number of children under the age of 16 in Westminster, the authority which encompasses Soho, increased by 30%, nearly double the rate for that age group across London. As a result, landowners have become more active in sprucing up the area: “Our motto is: edgy but not seedy,” says Steve Norris, the chairman of Soho Estates and a former Conservative MP. Crossrail, a new train line with a station north of Soho at Tottenham Court Road, will also bring a swathe of shiny new shops and offices.
This irks many, however. “Soho is the last ramshackle area of the old soot-stained, post-war London,” says Rupert Everett, an actor who has campaigned for the rights of sex workers. “Once that turns into a cascade of glass, then London is gone,” he sighs. After the closure of Madame Jojo’s a campaign group, Save Soho, was set up; around 9,000 people have signed a petition lambasting the change of “once proud centres of subculture” into “identikit high-end boutiques”. Pete Townshend, a musician, has argued that Denmark Street should be made into a “heritage zone”.
This poses a dilemma for developers. They want to spruce up the area while retaining the vague air of bohemianism that has attracted many to it. Parts of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, which was the centre of the hippie-era “summer of love”, have become tourist attractions, partly because of NIMBY residents. Westminster City Council is trying to limit the number of office-to-residential conversions. Others are pushing for a “creative-industry policy” for the area, in which film companies and the like have a say about developments. Such schemes may help prevent Soho changing too swiftly. But in many cases it may be too late.