Soho and Regents Street: London as a Body17 minute read

Interpreting London as Body Through the Developments of Soho and Regent Street

Viewing London as a body, the heart of the city inevitably functions as the ‘blood pump’ at its core location. The area of Soho and Regent Street is seen as London’s central area, serving as an attractive hot spot to both locals and tourists. Famous for its numerous restaurants and pubs, Soho is praised to be the ‘heaven of a night out’ while Regent Street functions as an iconic high-end shopping destination. Locating at the ‘heart’ of the city, they are not only agents of the city’s commercial purposes, but are also precursors of London’s city culture. According to Simonsen, ‘Body serves both as point of departure and as destination’. (Simonsen, 2005) It is necessary to delve in the trajectory of the evolution of a space in understanding how they evolved over time from the original standpoint to present stance, in order to predict the future possibilities. In this paper, I will argue that both Soho and Regent Street’s historical developments represented London’s ‘bodily transformations’; the former caused significant shift in the local social dynamic and traditional culture while the latter experienced commercialisation of space through re-planning and rebuilding. The concept of order and reorder of space as body is crucial in understanding the past, present and future of Soho and Regent Street, with power functions as the underlying driving force behind these series of transformations.

1. Soho: loss of sex industry and continuation of homosexuality, cosmopolitan and gentrification


Soho has long been identified as the top entertainment district in London. It locates in the City of Westminster’s West End, with a total area of 2.5 square meters. (Sheppard, 1966) Surrounded by Oxford Street on the north, Regent Street on the West, Leicester Square on the south and Charing Cross on the east, Soho incontrovertibly has the most prominent location in London, which enables it to maximize its functionality and significance. Throughout the past few centuries, the area has experienced unprecedented change in nature, adding on to the sophistication of its historical importance. As early as in the Middle Ages, the area was known as St. Giles Field, which was a farmland. Then in 1536, Henry VIII made it into a royal park for the Palace of Whitehall. Between the 16th and 17th century, the area has been divided in different sections by the Crown and sold to various landowners. (Sheppard, 1966) At this point, Soho has not showed a bit potential in becoming a fashion and entertainment site as it is today. Instead, it became a hostile space for sex industry and waves of newly settled immigrants. Like a baby, the body of Soho gradually encountered its first series of contacts with the rest of the world, with emotions and sensitivity, generating growth and pain.

One of the two most crucial transformations that took place in Soho was its lessened characteristic being an iconic ‘red-light’ district, full of sex-industry and homosexual activities. The importance of ‘sexing the city’ is inevitable in the analysis of the chorological development of Soho, that it implies a society moving toward consumption and freedom. Moreover, the concept of viewing Soho as a working place is important because according to Marx, ‘human beings are characterized by the way in which-through-work-they transform nature and, at the same time, their own nature’. (Simonsen, 2005) The sex industry thus has a strong link to the working body in Soho, creating its unique culture.

In the 1970s, it has resisted development and remained as it was with its gorgeous Georgian houses, dark side streets, and more than 40 flats still were used for prostitution. (Mort, 1997) However, as the city of London gradually became more of a ‘globalized space’, changes occurred within Soho with a rapid decline in sex work with an increase in food markets and restaurant businesses: the area now has become less gritty. For example, the loss of original culture in Soho can be linked to the legalization of sex works and license issuing on nightclubs and bars. Also, accompanied by the influence of a more formalized capitalist economy, chain stores and restaurants have replaced the local private-owned ones, ‘kicking out’ the local culture formed within the past five decades. In addition, the popularization of Internet has largely replaced sex industries including sex shops and pornography shops that now people could simply satisfy their sexual desires online, for free. The atmosphere of Soho has been reshaped by top-down law enforcements and technological development that limits the extension of sex trades, coating a layer of strict ‘masculinity’ and control to the space.

Save our Soho
Figure 1: Protesters against the closure of Madame Jojo’s in Soho

More importantly, increasing demand for residential property in central London has greatly changed the social composition of Soho by turning offices and other informal shops into housing developments, fancy restaurants and pubs. The series of gentrification echoed similar process in New York’s Time Square in the 1990s and later on, in Brooklyn where Hippies entered the area and ‘hyped’ up the urban space by building luxury housings and opening high-end shops and restaurants. As a result, the body of Soho has lost its ‘soul’, that the locals claim that ‘if you take the sex industry away from here, you take away Soho.’ (Bloomberg Businessweek) Data reveals that since 2003, around 180,000 square meters of the West End’s original developments were turned into flats, inhabited by upper-class families with young children. (Bloomberg Businessweek) The changing social composition of people have shaped Soho’s local culture from an informal, sexual space to a more traditional and legal space for families to live in. According to a survey conducted in Westminster, between the year 2003 and 2013, the number of children under the age of 16, with the vibrant young bodies in moving into Soho, has doubled the number across London as a whole. (The Economist) By 1987, Soho’s sex shops have been reduced to only five, along with three strip clubs and two soft porn cinemas. (QX Magazine) With the removal of sex industries, many claim that the old Soho is gone, in a way that it has lost its original form and spirit, as the representative of a city full of freedom and pleasure. To save the old Soho, nine thousand people have signed up a petition opposing the change of the center of subculture with numerous pubs and sex shops into non-identifiable high-end boutiques. (Proud, 2014) The split in the ‘body’ and the ‘mind’, symbolizing the shift in purpose of special functionality destructing personal attachment, has caused inconsistence in Soho’s historical performance.

In addition to the loss of sex industry that impacted Soho’s social scene, changes also occurred within the homosexual community. Throughout London’s modern history, Soho has always been the core of gay activities, and has been called the ‘Dirty Square Mile’. (QX Magazine) During the Bohemian 1920s and 1930s, gay-friendly cafés started to emerge in Soho, following with the opening-ups of several historically important gay bars such as A&B and Quebec in the 1970s. (QX Magazine) However, in the post-war period, Soho has gradually become a homo no-go zone where the area evolved to appeal to older men in search of young women for pleasure. Based on labeling theory, sexuality has tight link to the development of traditional societies. For instance, Mary McIntosh views homosexuality as a social role, in which we can observe and conclude the trajectory of social development according to the social reaction toward homosexuality and the shifting perception of it relate to the concept of ‘body’. She contends that this shift from conceptualizing homosexuality as a medical condition to viewing it as a social role is crucial. (McIntosh, 1968) With the recognition of the gay community in Soho, especially after the underground was built in Leicester Square in 1981, the issue of AIDS has been brought into the spot light, also caused the disclosures of several gay clubs nearby. Slipping through the gaps of sex industry, the homosexual communities seized the opportunity while the government shut down most of the ‘inappropriate’ businesses in Soho. Now, the densely allocated pubs and restaurants in Soho provide an atmosphere that promote gay pride, also a sense of belongings and inclusiveness as the veil of London ‘reveals’ its ‘naked’ body and its true nature. Note worthily, the annual Soho Pride takes place in London every year since 2003 (QX Magazine) and has become one of the most prevailing event that attract hundreds of thousand people in participating and witnessing. Thus, the homosexual flavor of Soho seemed to stay and is likely to be persisted in the future.


Besides the gradual removal of the sex industry and the continuing gay culture in Soho, the composition of people who occupied Soho have shifted as well over the years. Body, in this case, is perceived in a material and substantial way instead of an abstract idea. As early as during the 16th century, new immigrants poured into the city, especially the French, formed London’s French quarter near Soho. With the establishment of the French church in Soho Square by the Huguenots, the French Protestant community deeply rooted into this area in London. In 1700, about five percent of London’s population were Huguenots (Cross Current), contributing overwhelmingly to local development of textile, small industries and the creation of banks and businesses. However, the flourishing immigration scene did not last for too long as a result of lack of redevelopment. By the mid-19th century, most of the former inhabitants in Soho have left while prostitutes and small theatres moved in. The population in Soho was extremely dense at this point, of about 327 inhabitants per acre in 1851 (Sheppard, 1996). Crowdedness and insufficient housing space simultaneously brought disease. It was the outbreak of cholera in 1854 that pushed upper-class residents away. In addition, areas like the Newport Market have developed a reputation of a criminal slum as a result of the high density of population and the drinking culture. The ‘sickening’ of the body figure of Soho has pushed for regeneration that it was until the construction of the two new streets, Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road that the area was finally ‘cleaned up’ in the late 1880s. (Chinatown London)

As gentrification took place in Soho, intellectuals and political figures, as well as artists and musicians have enjoyed spending time in Soho. In 1847, Karl Marx and Engels have debated the failings of capitalism in a room above a pub at 20 Great Windmill Street in Soho. (The Economists) The introduction of more diversified immigrants in London have further contributed to the functionality of the body of Soho, also creating different experiences through the bodily contact with the space. Waves of European groups, including the Italians, Jews and then Maltese, came to the area searching for a relaxing way of life and also cheap rents. (Sheppard, 1966) The vibrant atmosphere has proved Soho to be the ‘pulse’ of the city where all the ‘blood vessels’ join. Among the new comers, the Chinese landing in London has added a color of red to Soho. Situated in eastern Soho. Interestingly, the area of modern-day Chinatown was a military training ground. With the returning of thousands of Chinese sailors hired by the East India Company and British soldiers, the demand for Chinese cuisine has brought the Chinese society to Gerrard Street in the West End. (Chinatown London) The new introduction of Chinese cuisine has attracted the locals, who have got a little tired of the oldest European dominated restaurants. With the arrival of thousands of Chinese and other immigrants, accompanied by the ‘scaling-up’ of the Soho area, the essence of social sphere in the area has greatly changed.

One saying goes: ‘when the respectable Londoner wants to feel devilish he goes to Soho’. (The Economist) However, if one has not come to Soho before, he/she would not have recognized its change with the little remnant of adult shops. The changes were only noteworthy to the people who have witnessed its past, like the parents watching the growth of child’s body. As the child grew up and incorporated him/herself into the society, the temper and behavior of the child will change accordingly. The concept of change within the body can be seen in every society, because ‘each member of society relates itself to space and situates itself in it. (Lefebvre) He also compares everyday life to fertile soil and believes that a landscape without flowers or magnificent woods may be depressing for the passer-by but flowers and trees should not make us forget the earth beneath. (Simonsen, 2005) Soho, although endured degrees of transformations, has remained its bodily features in people’s memory, and still offers present values and obtains future potentials.

2. Regent Street: Empty-shell effect caused by power and commercialization

If Soho’s transformation signifies the social development of London’s central body, Regent Street, adjacent to the Soho area, can be perceived as a representation of the ‘body’s structural change shaped by the socioeconomic context. Regent Street is now one of the major shopping streets in London, with numerous high-end boutiques and shops with marble architectures and grand street layout. Originally designed in 1825, the buildings on Regent Street have encountered great demolition between 1897 and 1925, and were later on conserved. (Flinn, 2012) The process of that Regent Street experienced can be interpreted as a ‘reborn’ of a body.

John Nash is a name resonates with the art of town planning in London. In the design of Regent Street, Nash utilized the idea of uniting several dwellings into one façade, in order to create a sense of continuity to the architectural impressions. The combination of rural periphery and residential housing was unprecedented, viewed as the first garden suburb in London. (Walford, 1878) However, objection has turned against this ideal plan of Regent Street, with Charles Pitt being one of them, argued that ‘the plan was little more than a scheme to cheat residents and leaseholders of Westminster of their rights and freedoms under the law, as freedom Englishmen.’ (Walford, 1878) Local resistance among the inhabitants appeared, opposing the Crown’s appreciation over the idea of ‘public space’, which links to the concept of ‘the right to the city’. (Harvey, 2008) The imagination of a rational, ordered, and geometric city were in the authority’s ideal for London and was to be achieved by the city planners. Destruction over local inhabitants for the purpose of widening of boulevards became contested, as well as the excessive budget on the construction of the new Regent Street.

1813 Regent Street Plan
Figure 2: A proposal of Regent Street Plan in 1813

The degree of government interference over the city is highly debated here. Power thus played a key role in restricting the body of London from performing its free will. Not only did London encounter such problematic transformation of the city. Traces can be found during the period of Haussmannization in Paris, when private properties were tore down for public redevelopment for ‘modernity’. Space, in the case of Regent Street, was ‘produced’ instead of pre-existed, as it was the product of relations between the physical bodies and social dimensions. Lefebvre’s notion of ‘representation of space’ is quite symbolic in the development of Regent Street, because it creates a ‘showcase’ of body after the ‘Napoleon wars’. The new street layouts created a new kind of space, being pedestrian-friendly, clean and ordered, fostering a civilized body. Meanwhile, commercialization has pushed the poor and the ‘disordered’ out of the street, accompanied with traditional forms of commerce, such as St. James’s Market. (Walford, 1878) Similar occurrence has occurred in many developing global cities. For example, Beijing has also experienced reallocation of inhabitants, which led to resilience. On one hand, the city has obtained odder and promoted commercial development; on the other hand, the local culture and social space lasted for decades were sacrificed.

‘Separation of the city’ resembles ‘separation of a body’. Nash’s plan of the Quadrant, have diverged the street from a straight line passing through the Regent’s Park to Carlton House because it would have passed St. Giles, which he considered to be dirty and chaotic. (Flinn, 2012) In his opinion, he has protected the ‘inconvenience’ of the city from disturbing the residents. Thus, there was no eat-west route being developed according to him plan. As a result, the residents saw the whole project of Nash as an arbitrary use of state power and criticized it as separating the Nobility and Gentry from the trading art of the community. (Walford, 1878)

As time passed by, Regent Street’s feature no longer satisfy its commercial needs, due because they were simply too fragile and outdated. A large-scale demolition of Nash’s buildings took place in the mid-19th century, with department stores as replacements. As the lease ended, redevelopment of Regent Street was initiated between 1895 and 1927. The government issued strict rules on the lining and scaling of the buildings. Height and facades of the buildings were being highly regulated, accompanied with a new beaux-arts style street design. (Sheppard, 1963) Now, Regent Street has the most fashionable designer stores, with beautiful window ‘showcases’. However, the street became a space where people ‘come and go’. Although tens of thousand people shop here everyday, the street sustains in its ‘solitude’, like a ghostly body without flesh. State power and commercialization have taken away its past soul, leaving an empty ‘phantasmagoria’ with beautiful façades.


In sum, Soho and Regent Street have demonstrated interpretations of London as body through their historical development patterns. Soho, with its change in social dynamics shaped by the diminishing sex industry, urban gentrification and homosexual culture, has experienced a reorder of the body while suffering from ‘growing pain’. Regent Street, went through re-planning and commercialization, has resisted the power oppression forced upon the body but ultimately received new functionalities with a process of ‘regeneration of the body’ while enduring its ‘emptiness’. The physical and mental developments of a city intertwine, as the bone and flesh form a human body.


Chinatown London, Through the Ages

Cross Current, Soho’s French Connection, 1993, pp 3

Flinn, Laurel, Social and Spacila Politics in the Construction of Regent Street, Journal of Social History, Vol. 46 No. 2 (2012), pp 364-390, Oxford University Press

Harvey, David, The Right to the City, New Left Review, 2008, pp 23-40

Mort, Frank, Cityscapes: Consumption, Masculinities and the Mapping of London since 1950, Urban Studies, May 1998, Vol. 35, No. 5-6, pp 889-907, ProQuest Business Collection

Proud, Alex, A Gentrified Soho is Terrible News For London, Dec 2014, The Telegraph

QX Magazine, West End Boys

Simonsen, Kristen, Bodies, Sensations, Space and Time: The Contribution from Henri Lefebvre, Series B, Human Geography, Vol. 87, No. 1 (2005), pp 1-14, Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography

Sheppard, F.H.W, The Rebuilding of Piccadilly Circus and the Regents Street Quadrant, in Survey of London, Vol. 31 and 32, 1963, London, pp 85-100, London County Council

Sheppard, F.H.W, Estate and Parish History, In Survey of London, Vol. 33 and 34, St. Anne Soho, 1966, London County Council

The Economist, So Long, Soho; Inner-City Gentrification, Jan 3, 2015: 43

Walford, Edward, Regent Street and Piccadilly, in Old and New London, Vol. 4, 1878, pp 246-262, Cassel, Petter & Galpin, London

Figure 1: Tim Arnold leads protesters against the closure of Madame Jojo’s in Soho (Photo: RJKPHOTOS), Proud, Alex, A Gentrified Soho is Terrible News For London, Dec 2014, The Telegraph

Figure 2: Regent Street Proposal, published 1813

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