Has Crossrail caused gentrification in London’s LGBT Soho?

Gentrification has caused London’s LGBT Soho to lose its diversity and sense of community.

Gone are the niche sex shops, forgotten are the small book stores and the independent businesses are facing being wiped away completely. Gentrification is white-washing the rich and diverse culture that Soho is so well known for. The vibrant colours of Soho, the metaphorical bubble for the LGBT community to feel safe holding hands down the street – it is being eradicated one building at a time.

We can narrow it down to two causes: the Crossrail project and a shift in social habits.

There is no doubt that the landscape of London overall has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Every street has seen some form of change, with commercial streets having seen the largest shift in change – not only in the form of architecture but in terms of people and business types. Since recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, London has seen huge turns in terms of property development, including both renovations of existing buildings and completely new skyscrapers such as The Shard and The Stratford (formally called the Manhattan Loft Gardens). Both of these buildings occupied land that previously had very limited to no previous uses, unlike the development that is taking place in Soho, it appears like new projects can no longer afford the luxury of having land that isn’t currently occupied.

The gentrification of Soho’s community arguably could be down to the fact that the LGBT community has developed drastically in the past decade. With society and the UK Government now being more accepting to people who identify as LGBT it has allowed those in the community to feel comfortable in a variety of venues that they wouldn’t have done previously, such as straight male-dominated pubs. The reality of this being the case is simply untrue – LGBT venues as popular as ever, especially in central London.

The transformation of Soho that has lead to the gentrification we see today can be traced back to the approval of the Crossrail project in 2007. During the process of acquisition of land for Tottenham Court Road’s new station building project, several business were forced to relocate or close down. The most iconic loss to Soho and the LGBT community in London is the world-famous venue ’The Astoria’, which was subject to a compulsory purchase order and closed its doors in January 2009 and was subsequently demolished. Speaking to members of the LGBT community who remember visiting The Astoria do so with such passion and fond memories. Andrew Jones, an American journalist who visited the venue weekly in the late 2000’s told us “the atmosphere was unparalleled to anywhere else. It felt like a place where you could be exactly who you want to be and it’s reasoning for being demolished to be replaced with a new theatre seems disingenuous”.

Graphic from EGI/Local Authority Graphic, used with permission. Planning Applications with/without Crossrail backing success.

Crossrail has already been a stimulus for new build developments in Soho, causing concern amongst business owners, residents and local communities. The Soho Society Planning and Environment Committee acknowledges that the community is concerned about the scale of developments, and the change that it brings to the area. It is clear from comments raised in the report that there is an increased concern that the Crossrail project will polarise Soho’s rich and diverse culture, bringing in bigger businesses and weather residents, reducing the amount of affordable residential and commercial properties. Two years since the report was issued, it has indeed proved that residents were correct to be concerned as independently we have found over 35 commercial properties have closed since 2008. It is not fair to accurately claim that all of these properties have closed due to Crossrail, but we have identified at least 2/3 of these indeed have.

Soho Streets

Since 2008, when comparing Google data on commercial properties down Old Compton Street, it is clear to see the vast changes. Closures include:

  • Aware (fashion)
  • Rush (restaurant)
  • Play 2 Win (games arcade)
  • American Retro (fashion)
  • LoveSoho (sex shop)
  • Dirty White Boy (fashion)
  • Video Exchange (sex shop)
  • The House of Ho (restaurant)
  • Maison Kiss Kiss (sex shop)
  • Prime Focus (VFX company)
  • Paradiso Boudoir (sex shop)
  • Churchill’s Port House (bar)
  • Twenty Six Oyster Bar (restaurant)
  • JR Barber Shop (hairdressers)
  • Soho Broadcast (VFX company)
  • Moonlighting (nightclub)

As a catalyst for change around station areas, Crossrail has the potential to contribute to gentrification. When evaluating case studies we can note that many venues within a 1/2 mile vicinity of the Tottenham Court Road Crossrail development have closed at the point of lease renewals, where current tenant venues have been unable to negotiate reasonable terms or pricing for a continuation to lease the venue. This was a factor in cases such as First Out (an LGBT cafe) and Madame Jojo’s; a popular cabaret bar. Both of these venues were arguably very successful up until the time that they closed their doors for good, with the former eventually being demolished.

There is a compelling amount of research looking at the impact of a rail transport investment on the retail and housing sectors, but little research to date has looked at them in conjunction, and certainly not when it comes to the context of contributing to gentrification.

Both the 2012 and 2014 TfL studies into the influence of Crossrail on property market dynamics agreed that Crossrail reinforced the strength of Central London property markets. These reports are specifically tailored to promote the benefits of Crossrail and spin any negative impact. The repercussions of property prices rising along the route of Crossrail means that when it comes to commercial properties, the rates of rents increase dramatically too. The majority of the recent research uses an hedonic pricing method to measure changes in housing values following Crossrail investment. Soho’s Ku Bar owner Gary Henshaw told us about the closure of its sister venue, which closed it’s doors in 2014, citing that “a 50% increase in rent meant that after 17 years Candy was unable to exist any longer, it just wasn’t viable”.

The effects of Crossrail on Soho is ever-present, with a delay announced to the projects competition date it adds further stress to businesses in areas affected by developments and allows property owners further time to consider what the impact of the project will be on their land. Most recently one of Soho’s biggest successes is at risk. G-A-Y Late (part of the G-A-Y brand that exists in Central London) is the closest LGBT venue to Tottenham Court Road station and is now facing potential disruption from proposed redevelopment above the commercial property. Westminster Council recently rejected plans to ensure the company could operate as normal if the plans went ahead, despite the fact that Wesminster Councillor Richard Beddoe told news outlet Pink News that “the council is committed to preserving the character of Soho and its night-time economy”. Beddoe added. “The new plans keep the space G-A-Y Late occupies and we have urged the owners to continue to keep this important Soho institution in this venue.”

Crossrail is no doubt the biggest contributing factor to the gentrification of Soho, but it is certainly being pushed further by Westminster Council who simply seek to rebuild London and make further money from tourists. The Mayor and London’s Night Czar Amy Lamé have developed a new LGBT+ Venues Charter to help safeguard venues for the LGBT+ community in order to further prevent the dilution and gentrification seen before. Venues, developers, pub companies and property owners are all encouraged to sign the Mayor’s LGBT+ Venues Charter – a practical tool that organisations can sign up to if they want to open a new LGBT+ venue to affirm their commitment to the LGBT+ community.

1. A visible rainbow flag should be displayed on the outside of the venue
2. The venue should be marketed as an LGBT+ venue
3. The venue will provide a welcoming, accessible and safe environment for all
4. Management and staff should be LGBT+ friendly
5. Programming should be LGBT+ focused

This five-point pledge is endorsed by Stonewall, Pride in London, UK Black Pride, Queer Spaces Network, as well as several promoters and operators of LGBT+ venues. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan told reporters that “These shocking figures show that more than half of the capital’s LGBT+ venues have closed down in the last decade and urgent action needs to be taken. I want London’s LGBT+ community to feel truly valued, happy and safe in our great city and know how important these spaces are to its wellbeing.”

LGBT Pride flag

LGBT people must continue to support their community spaces, voice concerns and protest against the destruction of the communities pride. The LGBT community survived Margaret Thatcher and targeted bomb attacks, but is gentrification the final problem we face?