Soho has always been renowned as one of London’s cultural gems. Steeped in a rich heritage of the performing arts, the area is deemed by many to be an essential part of the capital’s identity. However, recent events have made those who love the community so dearly, fearful for its future and have left them with little choice but to take action.
With various redevelopment plans stretching from Brewer Street to Soho Square and Denmark Street, famous independent venues such as Madame Jojo’s, the Curzon, Intrepid Fox and the 12 Bar Club are planned to be demolished. In December of 2013 Westminster council approved plans by Soho Estates to build a 50,000 square foot development on Brewer Street, Walker’s Court and Peter Street. These plans would demolish the local bars and galleries, a process which has now already begun.
In its energetic fifty-year history, Madame Jojo’s had hosted some of the earliest gigs by the xx and Lorde as well as DJ sets. The venue was predominantly known by many as the home of burlesque and cabaret in Soho, but was in reality a real melting pot of subculture. Yet the venue is now closed after an incident on the 24th of October, 2014 where bouncers resorted to violence when dealing with a customer. The council stick by their decision to close the venue as it was, supposedly, in the best interests of the public’s safety.
However, Adam Parsonage, the artistic director of the Finger in the Pie Theatre group, which performed a cabaret show at Madame Jojo’s every month for the past six years, had this to say: ‘The closure of Madame Jojo’s plays to the weird gentrification that’s happened in Soho over the past 10 years. For 400 years its been the gloriously seedy underbelly of London, where some of the most interesting subculture has thrived, and yet in the last 10 years Westminster council seem hell-bent to destroy that, to gut its character completely and turn everything into high-end retail’.
Furthermore, Marcus Harris, who co-ran the now infamous White Heat night at the venue, hosting up-and-coming bands every week for more than 10 years, noted that: ‘Crossrail already took at least five venues in the area’. Boris Johnson’s plans for Crossrail are believed to cut right through Soho, leading to the demise of even more venues for the performing arts.
The Curzon is one of the capital’s flagship arthouse cinemas and was once voted as London’s best cinema by Timeout magazine readers. However the plans for Crossrail would see the venue used for a ticket hall and entrance into a new station and nearby Soho square shut off for potentially 10 years as builders complete the construction work. Michèle Dix, Transport for London’s Managing Director of Planning, said: ‘The Crossrail safeguarding was carefully planned to ensure that disruption to existing businesses and residents was kept to a minimum wherever possible’. Yet, those seeking to preserve venues with long and rich histories such as the Curzon, fear that the Crossrail plans will add to the increasing gentrification of the vibrant Soho we’re all used to.
A key protagonist in fighting the proposed changes to the region is Save Soho. Their founder, Tim Arnold claims that: ‘Soho has always depended on building around and adding to what has gone before, not by demolishing it’. His views are supported by the masses of people who regularly head down to Soho to indulge in all kinds of subculture. The group also has strong backing from numerous celebrities who are actively engaged in the performing arts. Stephen Fry is the chairman of the group and other widely recognised personnel from the industry such as: Benedict Cumberbatch, Guy Hamilton, Paul O’Grady and June Brown are also involved.
Save Soho is desperate to ensure the area’s culture and history is safeguarded and have henceforth appealed for support and also written to the Mayor in an attempt to: ‘light up the minds of central government and the developers who hold the keys to Soho’s future’. It does seem fair that the people who use the community the most and have been the most strongly affected by it should have a say in its future. However, unless campaigns such as Save Soho can get through to the moral parts of the profit-driven developers’ and politicians’ brains (if such a part exists in their minds), the area seems doomed to upmarket retailers and modern flats.
Fortunately Save Soho is not the only group campaigning against the gentrification of the area that has been occurring over the past decade. A group called Bohemians4Soho have been extremely active in Denmark Street since Madame Jojo’s closed down. Denmark Street, also known as Tin Pan Alley, has been the centre of British musical culture for generations. Over the years the road has graced the likes of: The Sex Pistols, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks, George Harrison, Elton John and David Bowie. Tin Pan Alley has been home to recording studios, music shops and small venues for decades; however they are coming increasingly under threat from Crossrail and property developers.
The 12 Bar Club is a small independent music venue on Denmark Street which has seen performances from the likes of: Jeff Buckley, Jamie T, Adele and The Libertines over the years. The small venue also provides great opportunities for up-and-coming artists to pursue their careers in the industry. However in the last few months the future of this iconic venue has become unclear.
Multi-millionaire Laurence Kirschel and his company Consolidated Developments are the main instigators of the redevelopment and demolition of Tin Pan Alley. Kirschel said: ‘We are creating a successful new quarter that will enrich and integrate with the surrounding well-established neighbourhood’. However, many people fear that these changes will in fact destroy the rich history of Denmark Street and bring more unwanted Starbucks etc.
This fear is clear to see with the 12 Bar Club which has been squatted by Bohemians4Soho since its closure in January. This group of artists, activists, students and locals are fighting for the same cause as Save Soho, but specifically for the 12 Bar and have taken more direct and radical action. One of the protesters told the Guardian: ‘We have joined forces to protest about social cleansing and the actions of corporate developers who want to change the face of Soho’. The Bohemians4Soho have illegally squatted in the venue for weeks now holding off bailiffs and in the process have opened it up again to all kinds of performing arts and subcultures.
On Monday the 2nd of February I attended their open community meeting which discussed how the culturally significant venue could be saved from demolition. Admittedly, I and my university friends did head down there mainly because we had heard that Frank Turner may be playing, so we did not really know what to expect.
Stepping through the doors past some of the bohemians who had been squatting at the venue, we felt lost. We were like rabbits caught in the headlights, we stepped into a room stripped bare and covered with painted writing, with a handful of activists inside. We were already planning our escape from what felt like a shifty drug den or underground organisation, like something out of Trainspotting or Fight Club. However, armed with our donations of two sleeping bags and the diminishing hope of seeing Frank Turner, we forged on and stumbled upon the meeting.
Many interesting ideas were put forward and as a political student alienated by the government and outraged by capitalism, I connected and sympathised with the anti-authoritarian ideas, the socialist structure and the anti-fracking poster on the wall. I was amazed and also proud of the sense of community amongst the people who were standing up for what they believed in. A massive fan of music and small venues myself, I felt inspired by the event to take more action in order to push for change.
This brings me to Frank Turner. Through Change.org Turner has launched a petition to help ensure that the live music scene and notably small venues are supported and protected. Turner’s passion for the industry and attitude towards those who threaten it was typified in his performance at the 12 Bar on Monday evening. Performing atop a snooker table, with no amp or mic and his acoustic guitar in hand, Turner appropriately played covers of Jamie T’s ‘Sheila’, Billy Bragg’s ‘New England’ and ‘Heart of the Continent’ by Canadian band The Weakerthans.
Speaking to NME afterwards Turner summed up the situation rather well: ‘We’re outnumbered and outgunned, those of us that care about Denmark Street, but we’re not worthless, we’re not meaningless and it’s important to say, every now and again, “I think this is bullshit”‘. The whole evening was about standing up for what you believe in no matter what the consequences, and whilst many knew the 12 Bar was likely lost, they still stood up for what they believed in, as Save Soho are doing, in the hope that, as Turner would say: ‘Oh but surely, just for one day we could fight and we could win, and if only for a little while, we could insist on the impossible’.