Soho: The Mouth of the City14 minute read

Soho is the mouth of London: it loves, it eats, it expresses, and it sings. It is dirty, functional, and essential. It is a sensory center, and it is made for indulgence and survival. It is a place where the outside world meets private tastes. Soho evinces a confluence of time by tying the history of the gay community in London with the development of the entertainment and dining industries.

Before this essay proceeds any further, I would like to note that this metaphor is an imprecise one and that any comparison of body parts to a city will necessarily require the reader to suspend his or her disbelief. I have also prudishly excluded pornographic extensions of this metaphor. However as the reader will imagine these extensions throughout the paper, he or she should find that the exclusion of these extensions does not detract from the overall analysis.

Soho is an area in London that is south of Oxford Street, east of Regent Street, north of Shaftesbury Avenue, and west of Charing Cross Road. The westward boundary of Soho is the most blurry of these because cutting off Soho at Charing Cross Road excludes cultural institutions like Denmark Street, which was once essential to the English music industry (Burrows, 2015).

These boundaries are also only the present boundaries of Soho. Historically Soho blurred with the slums of Covent Garden before Shaftesbury Avenue was completed at the end of the nineteenth century (F H W, 1963). The completion of the Avenue, which followed the completion of Regent Street earlier in the century, was part of a larger slum clearance project that also had aims to make transport and communication easier (Wohl, 2001). Projects like Kingsway, Regent Street, and Shaftesbury Avenue were all designed to make the city more modern and to cut through the dirty and densely populated slums. Thus the borders of Soho are somewhat new.

If Soho is the mouth of London, perhaps the slum clearance projects are orthodontics meant to realign and straighten crooked teeth. Or maybe a whitening treatment might be a better metaphor, for Regent Street and Shaftesbury Avenue were more permanent solutions.

Like a mouth, Soho is dirty. Not only is it a bit grimy, but the term dirty also applies as in sexually dirty.

The grime of Soho is perhaps not exclusive to it. The 1985 BBC documentary series that featured Soho, Just Another Day, provides a relevant albeit sterile snapshot of 80’s Soho. On the cleanliness of Soho it said, “Every so often, well-meaning people set out to try to clean up Soho. Nobody ever succeeds for long and so the sordid bits continue to flourish side-by side with the new generation of village people.” In present times, like in many (if not most) parts of London, the streets are cleaned every day. For example, Dean Street in Soho is swept between 8:00 and 14:00 every day (“Collections and Cleaning Street/Schedule Search,” n.d.). As anyone who has been out until the morning might know, the streets that are clean during the daytime become littered as the night wears on.

More unique to Soho is a liberal attitude towards sex. Sex has long had a comfortable place in Soho. Soho is one of London’s red light districts although in recent years authorities have made efforts to crack down on the trade. Today prostitutes still work there, and there are a number of licensed sex shops in the neighborhood today. Sex shops and strip clubs dot the streets. The annual pride parade marches right down Regent Street. To extend the metaphor, the sex industry in Soho is the slick red lipstick ready to make one blush.

Why mention red lipstick? It is an outward indicator that has been used in popular culture to denote sexiness. Soho’s sex shops have neon signs advertising their presence, and the mannequins in the windows are unabashedly dressed in harnesses and/or lingerie. Soho flaunts its sexuality and it encourages you to stare. Here sexuality, like one’s lips, is in the public eye.

It is difficult to write about these sex shops without any bias whatsoever, but what must be communicated is that these sex shops lend a distinctive character to the area by being so brash and bold. And of course this must be seen within the broader historical and geographical context of Soho. Historically the area has been a red light and gay district, and this strand of identity is clearly present today. Geographically Soho is between business, academic, government, and residential districts, so perhaps it represents a kind of sexual haven for people in the city.

Soho’s function as a red light district is a historic one. Open solicitation was particularly common until the 1959 Street Offences Act made illegal persistent soliciting. Prostitution was therefore tolerated in certain ‘designated’ zones of the city, like Soho. However as the global movements of sexual liberation swept across Soho, sex shops became more successful, which drove rents up in turn, and would, as we shall see, contribute to today’s restaurant-lined Soho (Collins, 2004; Hubbard, 2004).

Soho has historically been a cultural center for gay men (Cook, 2003). Gay men have met, socialized, and lived in Soho. They have been subject to policies designed to clean up the moral outlook of the area (Mort, 1998).

Mort (1998) explores the consumption patterns associated with Soho especially as these apply to gay males, a prominent group in Soho. The paper argues that residents of Soho consume and experience the city and goods in a specific way because of the character of Soho, and that tourists consume Soho in a specific way. Soho represents, or represented, a specific urban lifestyle.

Is this analysis of Soho still relevant today? Yes, because gay men still populate Soho, and also because this idea and impression is strong in perceptions and lore of Soho today. But also No, this analysis is not as relevant today because gayness is increasingly acceptable and because the gay community in London has adapted to the times and technology.

Before there were gay bars, there were discreet meet up spots. Jermyn Street is perhaps the most infamous, but gay men had to be delicate in this:

“As they moved through the city, men constantly made tactical decisions on here to meet and how to comport themselves. Operating on the precarious border between invisibility (to passerby and police) and visibility (to the other), such practices temporarily reconfigured the boundaries between public and private”

(Houlbrook, 2005).

Gay bars eliminated one of the public/private barriers by broadening the gay field of eligible. Apps and websites made the process discreet and expanded choices even futher.

Technology is largely to blame for the loss London’s gay scene over the years, but plenty of Soho institutions remain. A recent article posted by the BBC highlights the closures of such bars, which have theoretically become less useful as dating apps and websites have become more available (News and London, n.d.). However Soho still contains the greatest concentration of gay bars within the city of London, so this is still a major part of Soho culture (and also, Soho is still a big part of London gay culture). Mort (1998) is especially accurate when applied to today’s tourists who would be able to visit fourteen gay bars all within a ten-minute walk of one another (“Gay bars in London,” n.d.).

And yet in other ways Soho’s connection to the gay community has been a prerequisite for the neighborhood’s recent prosperity. Collins (2014) suggests that gay villages in England have undergone a process by which they become fashionable. At first the area is limited by its legal limit, then there becomes a great many activities for gay males, and this increases the need for other businesses in the area, which then leads the area into regeneration. Applied to Soho this process is very relevant. Indeed the gay male community in Soho, and visitors that are part of the ‘cognoscenti’ or initiated tourists as mentioned in Mort (1998) demand a high level of services in their tourist experiences.

At present this process is complete, and Soho now contains a particularly high concentration of restaurants. Collins (2014) links the rise of gay villages with a rise of the service sector. With a dose of moneyed tourists, these services should be prime.

Mouths taste. They consume food for pleasure and experience, but also for sustenance and survival. Soho, it follows, is heavily filled with restaurants and eateries of many varieties. The restaurants in Soho are diverse in price range and in their offerings, but they have also been known to maintain high quality. The following paragraphs will discuss two methods of finding restaurant concentrations in London: Michelin and Yelp.

Michelin stars and Michelin star concentrations are quite a novel way to capture the clustering of fine dining in a city. There are of course problems with the Michelin guide. A 2012 Vanity Fair article quips “In both London and New York, the guide appears to be wholly out of touch with the way people actually eat, still being most comfortable rewarding fat, conservative, fussy rooms that use expensive ingredients with ingratiating pomp to serve glossy plutocrats and their speechless rental dates” . But the guide nonetheless exists, and although it must be understood in the context of its flaws, it is still an influential judgment on London’s dining scene. Soho contains 4 of the 52 one- Michelin star restaurants in London (“London Michelin Restaurants – the Michelin Guide – ViaMichelin,” n.d.). A great deal more are located just south and west of the area, and this shows that Soho acts as a Northeast border for fine dining in the city. This indicates that Soho, while a hotspot for dining in London, is by no means the only hotspot, and must be seen within a greater network of fine dining in the city.

Another method of rating restaurants is Yelp. Certainly having a more egalitarian approach reviews, the site allows registered users, who can become users free of charge and without any qualifications, to post reviews. Just like Michelin, Yelp has its disadvantages. One need not be a food critic to write a review. People are more likely to post condemningly negative one-star or effusively positive five-star reviews while average three-star reviews (though potentially more helpful for prospective diners) are harder to come by on the site- average experiences seem to warrant neither praise nor complaint.

In a search for “Restaurants” in “London,” sorted by “Best Match,” Soho restaurants take three of the top ten spots. There is one Soho restaurant in the top ten “Highest Rated” restaurants, and three in the “Most Reviewed” category. Yelp, more than Michelin, shows a concentration of restaurants in the Soho area. Perhaps most intriguing is the “Most Reviewed” category in Yelp. If expanded to the top 20, Soho takes 6 spots. There are many reasons why Soho has a high concentration of Most Reviewed restaurants, and one of those reasons is that there is a great deal of foodie buzz in Soho (“Best Restaurants in London, United Kingdom,” n.d.).

Of the many historical restaurants in Soho, Kettner’s evinces a confluence of past, present, and future rather well. As mentioned in Just Another Day, the brassiere was a haunt for characters like Oscar Wilde and Agatha Christie and held famously wild parties (“Just Another Day, Series 2,” n.d.). By 1985, it had an ‘anything goes’ attitude. Today it boasts a list of modern cocktails and advertises itself as “an integral part of the vibrant, glamorous and debauched Soho we know and love today” (“About Us,” n.d.). Indeed the place may be seen as a microcosm of Soho especially as it has evolved since its opening in 1867 to fit modern needs.

Another aspect of the mouth is that it expresses. Expression is a serious aspect of Soho, which is part of London’s West End. Soho is a part of the larger West End, a general concentration of theatres in London. This paper will not examine in depth the theatres of London, but theatre needs to be mentioned in this paper as it is intrinsically linked with Soho. Theatre is often one of the ways in which a tourist or a suburbanite will experience Soho. One will buy a ticket to an event, and perhaps one will indulge in a pre- theatre dinner and a stroll around the area. Thus the theatres are linked to the dining scene, and this can be coupled further with the sex industry and the shops in Soho to make for an interesting night out. The point of discussing theatres in Soho is that theatre is a means by which many experience the area.

Soho is best experienced with the senses. This is why it is the metaphoric mouth of the city. The mouth loves, expresses, tastes, and breathes. It is necessary. It indulges.

If London is a body and Soho is the mouth of London, what metaphoric digestive system might Soho lead to? How would Soho connect with the other senses of London? Perhaps it is part of the connection between the posh Mayfair (the head? The hair?) to the business-minded Holborn and city (the hands?). Or maybe it should be viewed next to its neighbor, Covent Garden, and together they make up the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth of London. Together the areas have numerous music venues, theatres, restaurants, and shops. They are centers for sensory indulgence.

And what of the future of Soho? Surely it will maintain its footing in London’s dining industry. The sheer concentration of theatres guarantees this. Less relevant than ever, the gay bars remaining in Soho may be shuttered or may have to rely on tourists to support themselves. Though you may not see too many lanky rockers strolling out of a recording studio on Denmark Street, you can buy a lovely used guitar there. As people become both more and less sexually open, the sex industry in Soho will change with the times to fit evolving tastes and desires. And what of the next generation of gay males? Soho will become a legend in the gay British subconscious as its infrastructure becomes unnecessary in the face of apps and as the next generation moves to its own versions of Soho, like Shoreditch or Dalston.

But like most of London, Soho is best experienced firsthand. Next time you are in Soho for drinks, dinner, theatre, or something a bit naughtier, look around. The short Victorian streets are, surprisingly, clean, if you go at the right time. Perhaps you will see a mannequin in a Santa hat and a harness in a shop opposite a tiny store that sells bubble tea for £6 each. Maybe you’ll go to a comedy show in the basement of a hip coffee shop. Maybe you’ll shop on Carnaby street before eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Maybe your vision will go a bit hazy after walking through streets that are either hardly lit or heavily neon lit. Maybe you’ll dine at a place like Balls and Company, a meatball restaurant that seems to flaunt the neighborhood’s raunchy reputation. Tourists and residents can have a variety of experiences in Soho, and they each have the opportunity to experience the neighborhood as the mouth of London: dirty, taste-oriented, and built for love.


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