Sex Workers Protest as Soho Swaps Sleaze for ChampagneNeil Callanan and Patrick Gower
London’s property wave is swamping the world’s oldest profession.
The central Soho district’s prostitutes and sex cinemas are being overwhelmed by upscale restaurants, bars, hotels and apartments in an echo of Rudy Giuliani’s celebrated 1990s transformation of Times Square in New York.
“When I started 30 years ago, there was a long run of peep shows,” said Paul Giorgio, 61, who runs a fish-and-chip shop in the area. “Now people come in here and ask me, where’s Soho? If you take the sex industry away from here, you take away Soho, but I suppose they’ve got to if they want to make the money.”
Soho is the latest once down-at-heel area transformed by the boom. Kings Cross, where Google Inc. will build its U.K. headquarters, shed its reputation as a red-light district. Clapton, part of which was known as Murder Mile, is dotted with wine bars and a creperie. A two-bedroom flat in Brixton, scene of race riots in the 1980s, can cost 550,000 pounds ($937,000).
The property outfit created by Paul Raymond, the founder of the district’s first legal strip club, is leading the transformation. Soho Estates Holdings Ltd. is turning Walker’s Court, a 50-meter (164-foot) alley once renowned for its sex shops and adult cinema, into a high-end enclave.
King of Soho
At his death in 2008 at the age of 82, Raymond’s collection of property in the area had contributed to a fortune that the Sunday Times estimated at 650 million pounds. Nicknamed the King of Soho, he was portrayed in the 2013 movie “The Look of Love” by Steve Coogan.
Raymond’s son-in-law, John James, is now the company’s managing director.
Raymond “only had enough money to last about six months or it would have been the end of him,” James said. The strip club “went on to change the social attitudes of England and Britain.”
During an interview in his Soho office, James expressed little patience for any wistfulness for the way things used to be. An association known as the Soho Society objected to the damage that development would do to the neighborhood’s “unique character.”
“The public backlash is ill-founded and based in nostalgic, romantic bollocks,” James said, adding that the proliferation of sex on television and the Internet had accelerated an industry decline that began in the 1980s.
There was no romance in the air on Dec. 4, when almost 20 brothels in Soho were raided and shut by police.
“They bashed down doors, came in in full riot gear and with dogs, handcuffed women to the floor, were telling women they were going to tell family at home, pulled women wearing underwear outside in the street,” said Laura, a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, which campaigns for the abolition of prostitution laws.
In an interview at the group’s Kentish Town office, she declined to give her surname or say if she’s a sex worker, citing organization policy. The sale and purchase of sexual services is legal in the U.K.; brothels, soliciting and advertising related to prostitution are prohibited.
The metropolitan police entered 40 premises in all and made 31 arrests in an operation targeting a stolen-goods ring, they said in a December statement. The police later sought “to close the addresses linked to serious crimes including rape and human trafficking,” according to the statement. The police on June 5 declined to comment on whether anybody has been prosecuted for those offenses.
Prostitution is big bucks in the U.K -- though not as big as property. Paid sex contributed about 5.3 billion pounds to gross domestic product in 2009, the first time its value was estimated, about 60 percent more than BAE Systems Plc, Europe’s largest weapons-maker, did the same year. Real estate transactions worth 6.2 billion pounds were completed, according to data compiled by Investment Property Databank Ltd.
Soho Estates’ holdings are now worth at least $800 million, according to James. The company, owned by Raymond’s family trusts, had net assets of almost 375 million pounds through March 2013, the latest available, a filing at the company-registration office showed.
It plans to spend 10 million pounds to turn the bar, adult-movie theater and apartments previously used for trysts at Walker’s Court into a theater, restaurant and homes whose prices will start at 450 pounds a week to lease.
James likes the Walker’s Court plan so much that Soho Estates plan to move in, with a neon Raymond Revuebar sign on the street providing a backdrop to meetings in the boardroom. The Box, a burlesque nightclub, is being retained; Polpo Ltd., the restaurant group created by Russell Norman and Richard Beatty, will open a restaurant at the site.
“It’s a wonderful location, part of real Soho: seedy colorful and hidden,” Norman said by e-mail. A fan of Soho’s “grit and grime,” nevertheless “I really don’t get on with the crack peddlers on Rupert Street. And if a little gentrification can improve the area in this respect then I support it.”
Soho, also London’s main area for gay nightlife, started out very differently. It was made a royal park in 1536 by King Henry VIII and its name derives from a hunting cry. Developed as homes for the aristocracy in the 17th Century, it stretches from Oxford Street to Shaftesbury Avenue. By the 1800s, it was known for its poverty after the affluent moved to neighborhoods like Mayfair. In the 1960s, it became part of the Swinging London scene that grew out of Carnaby Street.
It’s been home to Karl Marx and Mozart. John Logie Baird developed what became the television in an apartment there. There’s also the seedier side: the world’s first venereal-disease treatment clinic for men opened there in 1862.
The district’s tradition as a red-light district contrasts with new luxury hotels and restaurants with names like Burger & Lobster and Randall & Aubin, which serves oysters and champagne. London-based Firmdale Hotel Plc’s new Ham Yard Hotel serves a cocktail mixing bourbon, absinthe, mint and homemade fig syrup for 12 pounds. The Windmill, owned by Soho Estates where more than 100 dancers strip nightly, is across the street.
An apartment on Brewer Street, adjacent to Walker’s Court, is valued at about 1.4 million pounds, compared with less than 1 million pounds in 2009, property website Zoopla Ltd. shows. The cost of renting an empty store rose 40 percent last year, according to broker CBRE Group Inc. Office-building values have almost tripled in the last five years and rents have doubled.
The Crossrail train line that will link Heathrow Airport to the Canary Wharf financial district also appeals to developers. The station at Tottenham Court Road will be about 200 meters from the Regents Sounds guitar store on Soho’s Denmark Street where The Rolling Stones recorded their eponymous first album.
Central Soho was the best-performing part of property investor Shaftesbury Plc’s portfolio in its last fiscal year.
“We’d never say we gentrify things because it sort of suggests sanitizing,” Chief Executive Officer Brian Bickell said by phone. “We like to keep the buzz and excitement of areas and we respect their traditions.”
The returns on real estate contrast with the lives of those working in the sex industry. Politicians’ “priority hasn’t been to ask why women with children in this country are going hungry because of cuts to welfare,” said Cari, a spokeswoman for the prostitutes’ collective. “We don’t hear them saying anything about more women having to go into prostitution because of the cuts.”
For Soho Estates, it’s time to move on. “I respect the 50 years of work Paul Raymond did, but that doesn’t reflect the next 50 years,” James said. “What I’ve got to do now is look at the property and say: Is there a better use for this?”