Recessionist: How The Recession Made Soho

By jamesup Last edited 120 months ago
Recessionist: How The Recession Made Soho

People can get in lots of trouble for saying that good things can come out of recession, but no doubt about it, the legacy of the last was not all bad. Here we start 2009 with the first of our uplifting investigations into the silver lining behind the cloud.

In the 1980s gay London existed at the fringes: in scruffy pubs, in basements and behind unmarked doors. The gay liberation movement was making political progress in the face of Thatcher's Government, prevalent homophobia and the tragedy of HIV, but in the champagne fuelled boom years of Chancellor Lawson there were few places for gay bars in London's bustling west-end. The (then) unfashionable district of Earls Court had been a hub for some time, but a large part of the scene was scattered around the fringes of central London.

As the fortunes turned, and the Dom Perignon gathered dust, there was a breakthrough: some smart bar owners got their calculators out and worked out the gay men, without the financial pressures of dependent family, would have a few more pounds to splash out during the downturn (this was before Aussiebum's £25.99 pants).

For Westminster Council, which in 1986 used new licensing powers to close down many of over 200 sex establishments in this historic vice quarter, the new cafe bars of the 90s gay scene were the lesser evil. License applications were regarded more favourably from venues open about their gay orientation; less fighting and no street vomiting, so they argued). Though the historic industries of Soho have proved remarkably resilient to soaring rents and hostile neighbours, trend setting venues like the Village and the Edge redefined what a Gay Bar could be - opening the scene to many more people and playing a big part in building the diversity that London enjoys today.

While fears that the gay scene would be pushed off Old Compton street by a recovering straight leisure industry in the mid 90s proved false, in the last few years a combination of rents, property development and Crossrail have shaken the communities hold on London's Gay Village. Bars like Trash Palace have moved out to the Zone One fringes, the Astoria stands ready (seemingly for an eternity) to be demolished and a new scene has grown up, dominated by the Arched clubs of Vauxhall and garnished by the check-shirted antics of Hoxditch and Camden. None the less, Old Compton remains the finest thousand feet of homosexuality anywhere in the world, and it could only happen thanks to the combination of London's unique nature and the difficult economic times.

It's too early to say what this all means for the 2010s: a resurgent gay Soho? A neighbourhood finally gentrified? Perhaps this part of London is destined to welcome it's next bunch of miss-fits. The forces are in motion: London will take the hit of the recession and will - as it has many times before - surprise us again.

Photo by Simon Crubellier via the Londonist Flickr Pool

Last Updated 13 January 2009