The Shifting Patterns of Soho

I decided to take a walk through the streets of Soho in order to investigate how walking can be a beneficial tool for a historian who is investigating the changing states of cities. I didn’t have a particular route planned for my walk, as I believe that in order to experience the labyrinth nature of Soho drifting is key- although, this was not to be an aimless drift. I was going to wonder and observe what Soho was prepared to reveal to me. When I think of Soho I think of style, sex and music. To me these are the most obvious stimulations, which have made up the essence of this area in the last few decades. Sadly, Soho is slipping away from the heart of London’s underbelly as property redevelopment giants are gentrifying Soho brick by brick. The media has declared ‘The Slow Death of Soho’. So I wanted to witness, firsthand, the changing spirit of Soho and to learn both about its history and have an idea about its future.

I began my walk entering Carnaby Street. I switched the song on my headphones to The Kinks who spoke of the ‘Carnabetian army’ referring to Soho’s dedicated followers of fashion. Carnaby in the 60’s tantalised the most exciting consumerist senses and indeed formed a very stylish army of mods and mini skirts. The baby boom after the war, coupled with new rise of affluence meant that youth culture was given the freedom to explore these consumerist desires. [1] Walking down the street it felt as if I was walking down a catwalk; the street was fast paced, fashion orientated and slick.

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I even spotted an image of Twiggy, the sixties style icon, in a window display. It made me question how much has style in our modern times generated social revolution? In the true spirit of a modernity lamenting flanuer, I cannot help but comment on the fact that London style today does not have the power to conjure a social revolution…sadly I feel like Londoners have seen it all. Mary Quants miniskirt, on the other hand, flaunted by thousands in Carnaby Street during the sixties, represented not only a new trend but also the sexual liberation of women, revolutionising public ideas about what was acceptable to flaunt and what was not.

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http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/license/109822537 – Carnaby Street mini skirts 1968

I then turned left into Broadwick Street. On my right I was presented with a ginormous mosaic mural created. It was depicting a woman stretching out her skirt to reveal the various streets of Soho. Each section of the mural seemed to represent different events and people that had once had a presence in Soho. It included the world’s greatest thinkers, poets and musicians who had been inspired by Soho. Overall, the mural effectively conveyed the great importance of Soho as a space of shifting patterns, social change and a place that has generated wordily entertainment. It was curious to me what Marx, who stares at passers by in the bottom centre of the mural, would have said about Soho today. It is highly possible that he would have condemned the women who were walking with at least 6 shopping bags, carrying yet more pairs of shoes for not being strong enough to resists the clutches of consumerism!

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I continued to walk further down Broadwick Street, I walked up to John Snows pub and stopped. I thought it would be interesting to find out exactly who John Snow was. Going into the pub I noticed there were wall hangings displaying useful information. I quickly learned that he was actually a doctor during the 1854 Soho cholera epidemic that had devastating affects on the predominantly working class population who resided there. This made me think about how much the neighbourhood has changed, as now I was seeing business men wearing suits, holding coffees rushing to their destination as if someone had copy and pasted them from Canary Wharf. I have to say, learning about the cholera epidemic made the walk much more fascinating. As I walked out the pub, I was immediately drawn to the narrow and cramped structures of these streets, having no chance of escaping the grit and dirt of city life. This also highlighted the fact that this city is constantly morphing. This once poverty stricken, cholera infested filthy neighbourhood- is now a destination for the trendy and rich.

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John Snow

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I proceeded towards Berwick Street. As I got closer to the street I started to smell the most tantalising aromas of street food. I turned into the street and was greeted by the hustle and bustle of a market. I was particularly excited to have encountered Berwick market, as I was aware that this had been a favourite place of Virginia Woolf in the early 20th century. Woolf had noted in her diary that on Berwick market one could find ‘stockings, ironmongery, and candles and fish’. [2] However, I did not spot any of those items being sold on the market during my walk. Berwick Street has also ceased to be the 20th century working class woman’s Oxford Street, once offering fashionable attire for affordable prices.[1] The market has changed from dealing cheap clothes and tat to catering people’s lunches. On this street there were tourists, shoppers as well as local office workers. The food ranged from vegan burgers, to Mexican, to Jewish, to American, to Indian, to Greek, to Japanese food- you could quite easily taste your way around the world on this market strip. I believe this change can be attributed to the fact that Soho today has many offices and many different businesses cramped together, thus cheap and tasty lunch food may prove to be quite the profitable endeavour for market stallholders. As I was at the end of the market I heard the cockney calls of the fruit and vegetable stall ‘1 bowl £2, 3 bowls £5…fresh fruit and veg ladies and gents, best in town!’. I bought a pear.

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At the end of Berwick Street I turned into Peter Street. People were queuing to enter the ‘SUPREME’ shop, which was right on the corner of the turning. The people in the queue appeared to be following a very similar fashion with all (except one) wearing a similar kind of sports shoe.

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I stood on the opposite road looking at them for a while, eating my pear. The people were going into the shop and walking out with a purchase and the new catalogue for in season clothes. The very orderly manner of things made me conjure an image of a consumerist conveyer belt. As I was finishing up my pear a homeless man wearing a blanket for a cape walked up to me and claimed that he needed ‘a fiver’ to save his life. I was curious to know exactly what the five pounds was for, but hesitated to ask. I didn’t have much change so could only give him £1.10; he thanked me and carried on walking. The homeless man, a prominent figure in all cities, represented the subversion of this frivolous consumerism I was seeing in front of me. The homeless man does not need a new pair of shoes to go in a shoe collection; in fact he does not even need to be wearing matching shoes. This homeless man outside an expensive cult fashion shop captured the exclusive nature of capitalism very well.

I turned into Wardour Street and I was soon to discover what David Bowie meant when he sang ‘Bright lights, Soho, Wardour Street, you hope you make friends with the guys that you meet’. As I was walking through this street I noticed that above the café Pret A Manger there was an old sign, which read ‘Cinema House’. This, I learned, was the remaining evidence of the fact that Wardour Street was the busiest hub of British film industry in the 20th century. [3] The sign today looks positively haunting.

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I then drifted a bit further turning left and then left again finding myself on Brewer Street. I stopped at the first sex shop I have come across in Soho so far on my walk- evidence that the seedy parts of Soho are still trying very hard to clutch on, fighting against gentrification. However, it has to be said that even this sex shop looked somewhat gentrified. It looked commercialised, flashy and glossy- not very underground at all. I decided that this signified the end of my journey.

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I have learned that walking is a very useful tool for a historian to use when trying to measure the amount of change an area has experienced. By walking you are able to deduce from clues, why change has occurred. There’s nothing like walking through the history of an area in a city.

References:

[1] Ewig, Elizabeth, History of Twentieth Century Fashion, (Bames and Noble, 1992) p.27

[2] Woolf, Virginia, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 1915-1919, vol. 1, (Harmondsworth, 1979) p. 135

[3] Walkowitz, Judith, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London, (Yale University Press, 2012) p. 157

Websites:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk

http://www.gettyimages.co.uk

 

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