The Blog

It's Not Too Late to Stop the Gentrification of Soho

Let's not react too late to the next development which comes along that seems intended to make a ton of money for a handful of people, but leaves the spirit of Soho much, much poorer. Let's learn to be proactive when we see those dreaded signs going up about the next "improvement" in this unique neighbourhood.

In his article "Rumours of the Death of Soho Have Been Exaggerated", which appeared in the Huffington Post on Thursday, my good friend Tom Harvey of Soho Create wrote eloquently in defence of the changes underway in this unique square mile of London.

His general point was that Soho is a better place now than when he first came to work in the area, and that "the complexity of managing urban development" deserved better than being condemned with the word "gentrification" - the "mealy mouthed...put down catchall for change".

I've known Tom since he and I worked together at David Puttnam's Enigma Productions, and he's a smart guy of clear sight and strong views. So it's fair enough for him to comment on the changes he has seen in an area he has worked in, "on and off, all my life", and see them as an improvement.

And, while I know these are clearly his own, heartfelt views, it's also fair enough for Tom to be supportive of the hand that is, so to speak, helping to feed his current venture. Soho Create, an annual festival promoting our neighbourhood as a centre of creative excellence, is something I wholeheartedly support. It's backed by Westminster Council and, as Tom readily acknowledged in the article, a number of companies with vested interests in the area - one of them being Soho Estates, which (to avoid the word Tom dislikes so much) is "managing the urban development" of Walker's Court - the "complexity" of which now seems to encompass the permanent closure of Madame JoJo's.

As we all know by now, the club, at which many major musicians and performers first cut their creative teeth, was permanently shut after a recent incident involving its bouncers beating up a punter with baseball bats. The decision to permanently revoke the club's license, even after a complete change of management and staff, can't come as a complete surprise given the Met's No Tolerance approach to violence in the West End "Stress Area". Nonetheless, it has caused exclamations of shock from many quarters.

But the future of JoJo's following completion of the Walker's Court development was always questionable. True, Soho Estates' planning submission to Westminster Council last year showed a remodelled nightclub, described in the application as being in "the space currently occupied by Madame JoJo's". A Labour councillor who was at the relevant planning meeting commented recently in The Guardian: "Nothing in the papers suggested that there would be a different club."

But note the word "currently" in the planning application. And when I was shown the plans for the development after lodging various objections re licensing hours and usage, while most spaces were clearly designated to particular companies, the future of the nightclub was extremely vague. At best, I was told, it "could well be" JoJo's. Pre-closure, the manager of JoJo's himself told a colleague, when we were planning music events there, that the club was only secure for the next few years - in other words, before the Walker's Court development was completed.

Like Tom, I agree that change is not always a bad thing. He certainly paints a terrible picture of the Soho he remembers from the past - "vomit on every corner, the vicious exploitation of women, and you could buy a gun for twenty quid".

Having worked in Soho since 1977 and lived here since 1992, I'm not entirely sure from this description that Tom and I ever hung out together on the same corners. But while my Soho of the past might be a rather more benign but infinitely more exciting place of old-school cafes and pubs, of small clubs and bars and all-day and all-night illegal drinking dens, inhabited by musicians, filmmakers, poets, painters, hacks, dreamers, liggers, free-thinkers, high-lifers, low-lifers etc, I agree that we can't dwell forever in a nostalgic, "never never" land version of Soho, where Jeffrey Bernard props up the bar at the Coach and Horses for eternity and Francis Bacon orders "champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends" forevermore at the late, lamented Colony Room.

But surely we can have respect for the cultural heritage of an area, for the clubs like JoJo's where creative careers were honed and forged?

And surely we can, to be blunt, call a spade a spade, and refer to "the complexity of managing urban development" as plain and simple gentrification when, like Walker's Court, it involves the removal of places of cultural and historical importance and replaces them with something that massively benefits the landlord, but which has been described by even Westminster Council's own strategic director of built environment as "poorly designed buildings which are too high and bulky", and, as an overall scheme, one which "would fundamentally alter the sense of place through a change in both the mix of uses and the built environment".

So with the greatest respect to Tom, he and I part company in our views about future developments in Soho, and will do as long as the only real say in those plans comes from property developers and other purely monied interests, and not the long-standing creative community that has made the area what it is today.

For me, I think the key thing is to learn our lesson from the whole Walker's Court/closure of JoJo's scenario.

Let's not react too late to the next development which comes along that seems intended to make a ton of money for a handful of people, but leaves the spirit of Soho much, much poorer. Let's learn to be proactive when we see those dreaded signs going up about the next "improvement" in this unique neighbourhood. Let's make our voices heard when it comes to fighting for the places which have made this such a powerfully creative area.

Let's take the momentum from the fight to keep JoJo's open, and like Tim Arnold and his widely supported #TheSohoHoboVsBoJo campaign, use it to keep the true heart of Soho beating.