The Baseline Collective, consisting of Middlesex lecturers Dr Magali Peyrefitte and Matt Ryalls, along with Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh, is currently engaged in the Baseline Project – an attempt to document ongoing changes in the Soho district of London and understand the implications for people who live and work there.
It features a unique multi-sensory approach, involving urine, neon, sound and body mapping, to chart changes in the use of the space over time, alongside interviews with increasingly marginalised members of Soho society, as Dr Peyrefitte explains.
The pace of change in Soho is hard to keep up with. The area is undeniably vibrant – attracting young professionals after work and tourists passing by into a growing number of cafes, bars and restaurants. This vibrancy marks Soho as symbolic of the 24-hour city, but these changes are also symptomatic of the neoliberal influences on the city. Historically, Soho has been home to gay clubs, music venues, sex shops, and brothels juxtaposed to form what Walkowitz in Nights Out – Life in Cosmopolitan London described as a ‘space of transgression’.
The transgressive quality of Soho is becoming increasingly fragmented. A number of landmark venues such Madame Jojo’s (known by many as the home of cabaret and burlesque in Soho) have now been closed down and others are struggling to stay open. Neon lights continue to illuminate Soho, but they are nowadays more likely to ironically indicate the name of a restaurant or a bar than to signpost a strip club or a peep show. The contrast between the old neon lights of seedy Soho, and the new types of neon lighting used by hipster cafes and craft beer pubs becomes a visual sign of social change as a result of gentrification in the area.
While Soho may once have been a space of transgression, our research over the past 15 months suggests that the allure of Soho is increasingly more in line with other areas in London, where gentrification is altering the retail landscape and where dimly lit bars and restaurants catering for a more ‘hip’ clientele are now spreading. With these physical and aesthetic changes, the décor of gentrification is planted. This is also evidenced by an increase in the number of licences granted to the catering industry while there is a clamping down on licences for less socially desirable (and less morally respectable) sex shops and betting shops. Conversely, a number of commercial properties have been transformed into residential properties as private developers in concert with Westminster City Council are aiming to attract a wealthy population into the area.
Recently, Berwick Street Market has been the subject of some news coverage, with the media interestingly using the language of gentrification. Situated at the heart of Soho, the shrunken market is resisting the pressure of Soho Estates, one of the main landlords which is redeveloping much of the area, including the space between Walker’s Court and Berwick Street where the market is located and has been operating for over 200 years. This traditional market has long catered for a local, often working-class population, selling fruits, household goods, fabric and flowers. The market is currently under threat as Westminster City Council is handing over its management to a private operator. In contrast, 30 metres away on Rupert Street, an area where strip clubs, massage parlours, and brothels used to dominate, a newly developed market in now booming, selling cosmopolitan, fusion street food in the places where seedier entertainment once flourished.
During the Baseline Project we have endeavoured to map the rapid changes happening in Soho using a unique combination of creative methods. We adopt a multi-sensory ethnographic approach to explore the area – looking at the ways in which sight, sound, smell, and touch are part of our experience of the city, and how changes in the area can be understood through our sensory reactions. We will, for example, map the neon lights of Soho, looking at how different venues use neon, and how long-established Soho residents and proprietors feel about the changes to the area. We are particularly interested in how gentrification is excluding certain marginalised groups (e.g. sex workers or social housing tenants) and we argue that Soho is becoming increasingly sanitised and shaping an artificial city. Ultimately we argue that what is happening in Soho is a very exclusionary form of gentrification that represents an exacerbated version of a neoliberal city.
For more, see Sanders-McDonagh, E. Peyrefitte, M. & Ryalls, M. (forthcoming) Sanitising the City: Exploring Hegemonic Gentrification in London’s Soho, Sociological Research Online.
All photos by Magali Peyrefitte.