Protestors stage a mock funeral procession on Nov. 29, 2014, as they carry a coffin through the streets of London's Soho district to demonstrate against the closure of legendary burlesque and cabaret club Madame Jojo's. (AFP Photo/Justin Tallis)

Cleaning Up London's Soho — to Within an Inch of Its Life


FEBRUARY 01, 2015

London. A wine bar in place of a sex shop, luxury apartments where a cabaret once stood — fans of London’s once glorious, seedy Soho district fear that it will soon be regenerated beyond recognition.

”We really would like to know that this cherished golden mile is not going to resemble something that looks like Singapore airport,” said Tim Arnold, a musician who has founded the “Save Soho” campaign.

Soho. Just four letters describe a mythical place that for generations has been a hub of counter-culture, somewhere for musicians, actors, gay people, night owls and anyone else who fancied it to live, work and play.

Karl Marx fomented his revolution here; The Who and legions of other rock groups were discovered here.

For more than 100 years, the rich came here to “slum it,” while the bored came because there was always something going on.

But now, it is hard to keep track of the cabaret bars, music venues and sex clubs that have closed, from Madame Jojo’s to the 12 Bar Club to Pink Pussycat, driven out by soaring rents as developers move in.

”I do believe that Soho will lose its soul,” said Kathy Martin, who runs the Enigma Ball events for transgender people.

On Walkers Court, described by novelist Howard Jacobson as a “suppurating alleyway of sexual half-promises,” there is only one “adult” bookshop left — and probably not for long.

Even a former police station has been turned into flats, while the arrival of a new underground train line through the capital has spread the disruptive effect beyond Soho’s immediate borders.

Denmark Street, an alley once home to music publishers, guitar shops and performance spaces and where Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant still goes to buy his strings, is making way for a newly modernized Tottenham Court Road station.

”It’s sad, we need to keep Soho sexy,” said Sara, one of the last sex workers who still operate in flats here, identified by a discreet “Models” sign at the door.

A police raid at the end of 2013, based on what many campaigners said was a flimsy pretext, saw most of Sara’s colleagues evicted.

”I’m worried about the girls who now have to work on the street,” she said.

Layers being ‘ripped away’

There are, of course, many who argue that there is nothing romantic about the exploitation of women in the sex industry and that Soho should have been cleaned up a long time ago.

Actor Stephen Fry says there is so much more to it than that.

”Its Bohemian character, its identity as the gay and transgender centre of London, its association with live performance and late-night eccentricity and free expression — all these are a gift beyond price that Soho gives London and which gives London extra value,” he said.

In the 17th century, Soho was home to French Protestant refugees, Italians, Jews and Chinese, giving it a unique character that persisted through the ages, and made it for a long time the only place to find an espresso or an avocado.

In the 19th century, it became a cesspit of deprivation, ravaged by cholera. But as living conditions improved, the area took on a bohemian vibe. Musicians, sex shops and then the gay community all followed.

”Soho has always changed, but the way it changed is by adding layer to layer. What happens at the moment is that some of these layers are ripped away to replace them with something new,” said Arnold.

The musician rightfully says that Soho “is in my blood”.

He was only four when he witnessed his first Gay Pride with his mother, Polly Perkins, a prominent figure on the cabaret circuit. He has played in most of the bars and venues in the area and everywhere he goes he meets someone he knows.

Arnold’s main target in his bid to preserve the area’s character is Soho Estates, which manages the property empire built up by the late “king of Soho” Paul Raymond.

Accused of trying to fill the area with the kind of glass and steel buildings seen all over London, it insists it “recognises the rich and creative history” of Soho.

The local authority, Westminster council, estimates that nearly 200,000 square metres of commercial space, much of it small businesses, has been lost in recent years.

And those that remain are finding it hard to keep up with rising rents.

Sam, a 73-year-old who runs “Jazz After Dark,” where the late soul singer Amy Winehouse started out, said: “I’m struggling. At some point I will not be able to pay anymore.”

Agence France-Presse