When I lived in London, I worked at 76 Brewer Street, on the end of Soho near Golden Square, on the eastern end, tucked away from the tourists of Piccadilly, Leicester Square, and Oxford Street on all sides, a neighborhood of its own. What used to be a hunting ground where Henry VIII would ride his horses (before he got so fat) and cry out “So-ho!” is now this gritty village filled with S&M clubs next to historic coffee houses adjoining public parks where pigeons pick at the lunch leftovers and intellectual-types discuss Nietzsche.
My favorite time of the day in Soho was early morning, especially early Sunday morning. The office where I worked was small and informal, and there were times when I had imbibed a bit too much alcohol and couldn’t face the night bus ride back home to Highgate, so I’d sleep on the Ikea couch next to my desk. I would wake up to the street sweepers picking up the trash from the countless anonymous revels of the night before, and get coffee at the Cafe Nero at the end of the block. Then I would wander around an empty Golden Square, through Carnaby Street, with homeless people curled up in the doorways of posh boutique shops.
Its the juxtaposition of the glamor with the grit that I love so much about Soho. No one does anything just plain and average there. It’s where musicians go to party, and where writers go to sit in clubs and brood over their work. The square mile of Soho is also filled with strip clubs with girls standing outside in tiny skirts, even on the coldest wettest days, beckoning you with foreign accents to go inside to their underworlds of lust – anything you’re into can be found in Soho, I’m certain. There are bookshops everywhere, with multiple ones claiming to be the Original Soho Bookshop. With the literary border of Charing Cross Road and its entry into Bloomsbury, Soho is right on the edge of some of the most wonderful writing in the world, and on any given day you can go into coffee shops and see writers you know reading the paper. My favorite coffee shop is Bar Italia on Frith Street, this historic spot right down the street from Soho Square where you can get a wonderful hot chocolate and sit outside watching the world go by, because the world pretty much does walk right past you in Soho.
Soho was developed in the 17th century as the City was becoming too crowded after the Great Fire of London. Huguenot Protestants were fleeing France, and they needed somewhere to live. The area was developed for the fashionable set of aristocrats who wanted more air and breathing space than was available in the City, but at the same time other areas like Mayfair were also under construction, and the noble set preferred that area to Soho. The bohemians, artists, and writers moved in. Also, the foreigners. At once point 40% of the population was French. There were also Greeks (hence the name Greek Street) and Italians (like my favorite Bar Italia).
There are restaurants and bars, of course, and while the area has long been identified with the pride scene (there was a horrible nail bomb in a gay bar, the Admiral Duncan, in the 1999 that killed 3 people and wounded 70) it’s not exclusive, and heterosexuals are just as welcome as anyone else. But there’s also a village produce market. Many snazzy media companies have their headquarters in Soho and famous people are always coming and going, but it’s just as open to “normal” people who are aspiring-somethings. Whether they know what they’re aspiring to or not. It’s got this creative energy that is impossible to replicate – the buzz of newness permeating through the historic buildings and streets.
People like me walk around Soho to be inspired. There is talk that it’s changing now thanks to developers, and celebrities making the area financially unavailable to most people, but that’s happening all over London, and Soho has enough personality to be able to sustain itself and fight off the gentrification, I suspect. There will always be people with vices, and those who willingly fill those needs. Around them will orbit the artists and creative types who watch people for inspiration. And then there will be people like me, who wander around absorbing the energy and vibrance, the life force coming from light and dark living in such close quarters.