The steady closure in Soho of small businesses — including sex shops, and the cabaret club Madame Jojo’s after an assault — in favour of residential developments, hotels and chain restaurants, has led many to claim the area is being “sanitised”.
Now there are fears that Denmark Street, a pivotal part of London’s music scene since 1911, where the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols recorded and Elton John wrote Your Song, will be cleansed.
Consolidated Development, which has owned the street for more than 20 years, plans a “permeable” mixed-use building on St Giles High Street — with an “indoor-outdoor” piazza at its base giving access to the thousands of passengers expected to pass through Tottenham Court Road station once Crossrail arrives — that will necessitate the demolition of one building on the north side of Denmark Street and others in Denmark Place, the alleyway behind.
Consolidated’s owner Laurence Kirschel claims there are more music-based businesses in the area today than there were when he took it over and the development is “totally preserving Denmark Street and reinforcing its music history”.
Plans include a new 2,000-seat underground venue, a “hall of fame” exhibition in Denmark Place, “a sort of non-members Groucho Club for the music”, and an agreement with Camden Council that shop leases that fall vacant will be offered first to music businesses.
A campaign and online petition to “save Denmark Street”, focusing on the Forge building occupied by the 12 Bar Club, as well as the area’s musical history, quickly gained support.
Last month Tom Harvey of the SohoCreate Festival issued an open letter, signed by Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch and Idris Elba among others, asking the government and the mayor to protect Soho’s unique character.
That same month the 12 Bar Club was closed because of safety concerns and rent arrears according to Kirschel. Protesters took over the building. Speaking before their anticipated eviction last Friday, one of the occupiers, Steve, said: “We want to keep this place open as a community centre. What do I think our chances are? Absolutely zero.”
Kirschel points out that for all the romance clinging to these two zones either side of the Charing Cross Road, one in Camden and the other in Westminster, Soho was a violent, threatening place, and Denmark Place a hot spot for drug crime.
My wife worked for a Soho ad agency in the Eighties — any girl running an errand was given a film canister to prevent her being accosted as a prostitute. Later in her career she regularly saw junkies shooting up in the basement wells of empty offices opposite the north end of Denmark Street, where Renzo Piano’s poster-paint coloured Central St Giles development now stands.
There are divisions among campaigners. The actor Rupert Everett has championed the case of sex workers who want to stay in Soho. Restaurateur Russell Norman, of the Polpo group, told ES magazine last month that he thought strip clubs should stay, but the brothels should go.
Leslie Hardcastle, president of The Soho Society, fears corporate property investors will overrun the place with their soulless “lock and leave” homes that will kill community life and the creative spirit in the area on which these venues thrive.
Walk through Denmark Street and Soho, and the traders, whose livelihoods would seem to be most at threat, voice a raft of opinions. “The area’s definitely going to change, but it’s not going to be as fast as people think,” said Felix Lawrie, sales assistant at Hank’s Guitars in Denmark Street.
A manager of another nearby music shop, who asked not to be named, shrugged: “It’s the nature of capitalism, isn’t it? The centre gets sanitised, but the 12 Bar has already reopened in Holloway and there are interesting music scenes springing up in Blackheath and Hornsey.”
Bev Crome, of the Rose Morris Piano Centre, was more regretful: “This is a community. People help each other out, we sell different brands and refer customers to each other. In five years it will all have changed. It’s a shame.”
Cristina Onuta, manager of the Italian deli, i Camisa, in Old Compton Street for 16 years, has watched all the old businesses disappearing: “The business rates keep going up: it costs us £3,000 a week now.”
The traders of Berwick Street market, many of whom have worked their pitches for 40-plus years, didn’t want to talk. But Martin Borovick, the third generation of his family to run Borovick Fabrics in Berwick Street, said: “The day of the market has gone. We could do with Berwick Street being developed — not gentrification but modernisation.”
What is the middle course between the needs of a changing city and the history that gives these parts of London its character? Borovick praised the actions of Shaftesbury, a major Soho landowner, which has upgraded premises on Newburgh Street and encouraged independent traders to move in.
John James of Soho Estates, another major landowner, which is currently doing up Walker’s Court and planning to relaunch its own version of Madame Jojos, said: “Encouraging independent traders has always been at the forefront of Soho Estates’ lettings policy and will continue to be so.”
Harvey would like local authorities to “be more strategic” in the developments they allow and encourage the creative industries into the centre of London.
The idea of “heritage rents” has been raised to protect historic businesses, but “rent control” has a scary sound to many. Soho and Denmark Street could potentially be declared areas of Special Policy, which would theoretically preserve their character. But such a designation failed to prevent US clothing firm Abercrombie & Fitch from muscling into Savile Row.
Camden Council sees no need for this, claiming that Consolidated’s current proposals provide better protection than ever for Denmark Street’s character.
Ditto Westminster. Councillor Jonathan Glanz said: “It would be wrong for this generation to claim Soho’s current look, feel, shops or bars as worthy of special status when those who created the Soho of today were themselves in many ways doing so by re-inventing its past.”
Will the next step be serious sanitisation or a new flowering of creativity in Soho and Berwick Street? Watch this space.
Pictures: Daniel Lynch