When heading from the office to Berwick Street I sometimes go via Walker’s Court, the small alley from Brewer Street into the south end of Berwick Street.
The alley had been lined with licensed sex shops until recently. Now they’re almost entirely gone. There’s also a vacancy in Old Compton Street where there had been another straight licensed sex store. I wondered whether high rents and attrition had got to these shops or whether Westminster Council was stepping up its relentless attempt to gentrify Soho.
I’m very conflicted about what’s happening in Soho. I’m not a client of straight sex shops. But that’s equivalent to saying that I don’t patronise a local barber shop. The shops in Walker’s Court and their clients never bothered me and I didn’t feel unsafe passing through the alley during the work day. It felt much the same as Tisbury Court, where there are sex shops mixed with residences and a quirky basement bar.
Shabby is rapidly losing ground, being replaced with fast food/takeaway chain shops and clothing shops. I’m not against new shops, new shop fronts. About 20 years ago the mayor of Manhattan pushed for development to clean up Times Square and 42nd Street. Away went the sleazy cinemas and unsavoury shops that made the area dodgy. I haven’t been back to 42nd for years, but the change is supposed to be a triumph of family-friendly, upmarket Theater Land, though at the time ‘real New Yorkers’ thought the area had become too bland and ‘Disney’ (who were a major part of the redevelopment).
I don’t know whether Walker’s Court was a hotbed of crime, though the word in the office is that now that the alley no longer has tenants, gangs have taken over in the evening. There are currently major development applications in Westminster Planning for the Walker’s Court/Brewer Street area.
Shabbiness and low rent breed creativity and small business start-ups. This is the lesson Jane Jacobs taught about Greenwich Village in New York City. Westminster seems intent on destroying Soho’s identity. The neighbourhood will not be the same.