Sunday, May 18, 2008

Moor Street, London


Soho has always been a small world apart from the West End. Home to successive generations of outsiders – Huguenots, Italians, Chinese – its small houses and shops contrasted with the luxuries of Piccadilly and the commercial go-getting of Oxford Street, the thoroughfares that mark the boundaries of Soho to the west and north. In the 20th century the area was known for a heady mix of film companies and restaurants (some patronized by West End theatre people and bohemians from nearby Fitzrovia), plus London’s dark side – brothels, lap-dancing clubs, gambling dens, protectioneers, drug-dealers.

There’s not so much of the old Soho left now. There’s the odd Greek restaurant, all formica and cheapo ouzo, the occasional old-fashioned barber, a sex shop or two. There are also the cherished and precarious survivors – Maison Bertaux with its pastries and rickety stairs, the bohemian Colony Club in a building that seems so fragile it might be held up by the thick green paint on the walls. Mostly, though, the lights are brighter and the businesses less seamy or steamy than they were.

One area where the dodgy Soho clung on was the bit known to the police as the Moor Street Triangle, bounded by Old Compton Street, Charing Cross Road, and Moor Street itself. Fronted by restaurants, a hairdresser’s, a taxi office, and defined at its corners by a diner, a pub, and a bookshop, this enclave also sheltered drug-dealing, a lap-dancing club, and the kind of rooms you hired by the hour. The properties in the triangle had been unofficially converted and adapted – extra ceiling height for the lap dancing, lower ceilings for the more horizontal activities above, lean-tos in the courtyard to provide extra kitchen space for the restaurants, interconnecting corridors allowing those in the know to enter from Moor Street and exit via Old Compton.

The triangle is being redeveloped now. Gone are the jerry-built additions; gone the low-ceilinged bedrooms; gone the tawdry shop fronts. Out have come the detritus of sex slavery and cheap restaurant food, together with the desiccated python, star of an exotic dancing act, that escaped and lurked in the yard, living off kitchen scraps. The Soho-Georgian parts of the facades are preserved or replaced with finishes that are in keeping with what’s already there, and the corner buildings – diner, bookshop, and pub – remain as they were. It’s a neat scheme, which looks as if it will resist the temptation to sanitize completely this knockabout corner of London. But no doubt the shady businesses that once traded here have set up shop elsewhere.

5 comments:

Peter Ashley said...

That group of telephone boxes look like they've huddled together for protection. Perhaps from the BT bosses who want to get rid of all of them ASAP. What a racket.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, a nice huddle of K6s, by the look of things. The Twentieth Century Society are on the case of getting red boxes protected – even the more modern-looking K8s and the ones (I forget the number) with the stamp machines incorporated. Stamp machines: another useful facility that's very nearly vanished. Don't get me started...

Thud said...

I worked and lived in this area during the early 80's...always had a village feel,especially early in the morning...a strange village I'll admit.

Ten Inch Wheeler said...

The Cappuccetto cafe vanished in that redvelopment. I miss the hand-painted menu on their window.

Anonymous said...

Do you know where I could more information about Moor St in the 1860-1870's? My Great Grandfather was born at no 8 Moor St and his father was a cheesemonger at the time. I've been past so many times but it is always under scaffolding.