Lunar eclipse over Soho (Translated from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung)
by Marion Löhndorf
London’s golden mile of Soho, behind whose scenes and on whose stages many creative types work today, is in a critical condition. For years, the neighbourhood has been undergoing a gentrification process. But now the construction of a new transport hub has exacerbated the situation. Soho is one of the most exciting areas of London. Even the official metropolitan tourist site, Visit London, knows this. But not for long, by the look of it. More and more entertainment establishments disappear in the entertainment quarter in the heart of downtown. Its charm already survived more than three centuries and the moon over Soho has been sung about by Bertolt Brecht in his Threepenny Opera. Now, chic shops and expensive apartments are to be built. Those who are queueing in the streets of today’s Soho are hardly planning to visit a night club, a cocktail bar or another establishment for adults – because many of those are in the process of closing their doors forever. Instead, locals and tourists wait patiently on the narrow pavements of the neighbourhood for entry to one of the newest trendy restaurants, which do not take reservations. It would be easy to say that this is the way things go: neighborhoods change, new markets reshape the cities.
However, the attractiveness of London – the skyline of which is about to take on dramatic, new dimensions – rests heavily on the historic areas – from Primrose Hill over Hoxton to Portobello. With Soho a borough is in danger, whose history and charisma is buried deep in the memory of London and is now called “iconic”. In the 18th century the immigrant melting pot Soho was already an entertainment and arts district. Not only musicians of the 20th century, who wrote history, roamed the streets here and performed at the Marquee Club or in Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. Even the eight-year-old Mozart lived for several months in Soho, in 1764, as a child prodigy on a concert tour. The residents, many of whom are attached with romantic love to their quarter, are proud of the glamour of its past, which is still palpable in the present day.
The list of those who took residence here at one time or another is impressive, ranging from Franz Liszt and Karl Marx to Casanova and his compatriot, the painter Canaletto. Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon were the prominent Soho visitors of the fifties. Many stories could be told about pubs and other establishments of Soho, such as the musician’s watering hole “The Ship”, and the “The Coach and Horses”, whose decor was immortalised in a famous stage play (“Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell” starring Peter O’Toole).
There is a legitimate reason for concern about the dilapidated charm of the old Soho glory. The adjacent metro station Tottenham Court Road is being developed into a transportation hub of the city in the Crossrail project, and this is playing a crucial role in the purging of Soho. Tottenham Court Road Tube will not be a discrete tube entrance any more, but a colossal building that will attract new customers and new businesses. The area which had already been disfigured in the sixties by the Centre Point tower, which is unrelated architecturally to the surrounding buildings, is already beginning to change. The nearby Denmark Street, where rock musicians bought their instruments, lived or worked, and where magazines such as Melody Maker and New Musical Express were launched is in acute danger through the construction of Tottenham Court Rail Station.
A relentless gentrification has been at work in Soho for years, said the left-liberal “Guardian” under the title “The slow death of Soho”. And the conservative “Daily Telegraph” had the headline: “A gentrified Soho is terrible news for London”. The sad news of the death of the district of creativity and vice made its way through all the major English newspapers. Another one of the old “institutions” of the quarter was just recently closed, the burlesque nightclub “Madame Jojo’s”. For half a century, “Madame Jojo’s” served as a stage not just for strippers, but also for aspiring musicians. Lorde, Adam Ant, Adele, The XX played there. It was the “Jojo”-affair that for many residents, artists, performers and visitors, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The reason for the closure was, in typical Soho style, controversial: a bouncer had beaten unwelcome guests with a baseball bat; but the accomplished closure had been referred to by insiders as a classic excuse.
They wanted to systematically “clean up” the district said enraged Soho fans who had been watching the process for years. Now they take to the barricades to preserve their habitat. In order to be heard, residents, artists and bohemians together with politicians, founded the committee “Save Soho”, which is explicitly not to be understood as a group of protesters, but supports campaigns, and will give them a voice. In the actor, writer and television presenter Stephen Fry, the Committee found a prestigious, prominent chairman. He says: “London would simply not be London without Soho and its unique blend of raffishness with a hint of wickedness. It is a place of artistic freedom of expression with its sense of a gay, lesbian and transgender scene. “The urge to gentrify the neighourhood to maximise profits would be a disaster for London, according to Fry.
Other celebrities, including Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch and musician Gary Kemp (Spandau Ballet), Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend (The Who) appealed to the London Mayor to advocate for the preservation of the beloved bohemian mile: Among other things, they signed a letter to the “Times” which was published on December 3rd and prompted an article the same day in the news section of the newspaper with information. Soho is home to many working in the creative industry – not only on the streets, in bars and on the stage, but also behind the scenes. Little known to the public is the high density of independent media companies for postproduction and digital effects that forms a vibrant community in itself. It still benefits from the reasonably affordable housing rents of the basements in Dean Street. The director Mike Leigh, whose film about the painter Turner just made a huge splash, has had his office in Greek Street for years; the film directors Ridley and Tony Scott founded in 1968 a production company in Soho, which still has its London branch in Beak Street. Many actors’ agencies opened their offices in Soho as well.
And last but not least a number of Savile Row tailors have their workshops there. The activists hope that London’s Mayor Boris Johnson will take an active role in the protection and maintenance of iconic venues of Soho and the entire West End. The musician Tim Arnold is a driving force behind the Save Soho Committee. He says: “We want the voice of the artists performing and working here to be heard. This community deserves to be heard, because it has contributed to Soho’s global appeal and made it what it is today. “
As yet, there is still a lot going on in the area between Charing Cross Road, Piccadilly and Leicester Square, day and night. Street prostitution is long gone though, as in the seventies the brothels in Gerrard Street have given way to the development of Chinatown, which today rounds off the area with shops and around 80 restaurants with an extra dose of exoticism. Cabarets, bars, clubs and nightclubs Members still enjoy a large clientele. There are gay cafes, traditional and trendy bars, small shops of all kinds, cabaret and music shows, sex shops, art galleries, restaurants, members clubs like the Groucho and the Soho House Club, which attract an international artist and media scene, fashionable hotels and dilapidated small restaurants that have been forgotten by time and loved even more for it by insiders.
The filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, next to Mike Leigh and Ken Loach one of the most important main British directors, immortalised the district only a year ago in his film “The Look of Love,” in which Steve Coogan played the porn king of the ’60s and 70s, Paul Raymond. Raymond’s story, which looked nicely decadent in the film – but not as if it was of further relevance for many – , was in reality crucial for Soho. When he died in 2008 he left a fortune that was estimated at EUR 848 million. With his “Revue Bar,” he bypassed in 1958 the official striptease ban by having it declared as a private club, that won 45,000 members in a remarkably short time. At the end of the seventies Raymond bought much vacant property in Soho with his assets. Today the two granddaughters of Paul Raymond, Fawn James and India Rose James, own almost everything in Soho. The Real Estate Company “Soho Estates” is managed by their stepfather. The Committee of ‘Save Soho’ want to cooperate constructively with the heirs of the striptease-millionaire. According to Tim Arnold, the intentions of Soho Estates became clear though in their dealings with the former “Revue Bar”, which was transformed into the burlesque club “The Box”, where no table can be had for less than 1000 pounds and which is an offshoot of the eponymous New York club. “Our fear is that the new establishments are not accessible for everyone and for all income groups,” says Tim Arnold. The heart and soul of Soho is the inclusiveness: everyone is welcome. “If Soho is to maintain its international appeal, they should listen to us.”