Walking past icy Burberry’s with towering, floor-to-ceiling windows (or a glossy Louis Vuitton with a glittering, metallic display), you’d be hard-pressed to believe Soho had a not-so-glamorous past. Amdist whimsical Vivienne Westwood boutiques is the borough’s dirty, delicious history of communism, sex work and gentrification.
Going on a tour of Soho today painted a salacious picture of London’s former red light district. I’m not sure how much empowerment there was to be had by the women working the industry.
Whether you consider this a W or an L for the patriarchy, a lady named Helen O’Brien stands out as a leading woman in Soho’s sex industry. O’Brien worked her way up from dancer to co-owner of a nightclub.
The Eve Club, however, didn’t go down in history for such a feminist milestone. Apart from being the chill spot of Frank Sinatra, the Eve Club made headlines as a site of controversy throughout the 1960s + 1970s. It was tied to two national political scandals that ended in resignations.
As far back as the late 1770s, though, Soho was known for its brothels. In the mid- to late 1700s, a book called “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies” was published as a sort of almanac of sex workers.
In the 1960s, the term “Soho walk-up” was specifically coined to describe a flat in which prostitution took place. The remaining flats that exist today do so within a legal grey area.
Street prostitution was officially outlawed in 1959 with the Street Offences Act. Prostitution was outlawed across the board with the Sexual Offences Act in 2003. The latter act bans solicitation on the street and in public places. Does public access to a flat mean the space can count as a “public place?”
Much to the chagrin of some, a lot of these flats have been closed down. Some for moral reasons and others for the sheer price of real estate in what is an expensive and forever up-and-coming commercial district.
In that same vein, the industry lives today in what can be seen as a purely artistic and light-hearted fashion: through gallery exhibitions and walking tours and brothel spaces repurposed as chic nightclubs.
Of course, there is more to Soho than just sex and luxury shopping.
There is a wealth of music history, including iconic music venues and the little spots where your favorite classic rock ‘n’ roll songs were probably recorded.
There’s also the Palace Theatre. It was most notably home to “Les Miserables” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” These days, you can find people queueing up for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”
To that point, while were being imbued with 200 years of Soho history, we had a quick stop at a very important establishment: Crosstown Doughnuts.
In 2014, these “luscious” doughnuts made the cut for “21 London Street Foods That Will Change Your Life.” The next year, the stakes got higher. The peanut butter and jelly doughnut topped Buzzfeed’s listicle of “18 British Desserts You Must Try Before You Die.”
We filed into the tiny little shop to get our wares and circled back outside to eat our goods in the sunshine.
Doughnut sampling was few and far in between. Some went with the decadent-looking chocolate truffle or sea salt caramel banana. Some went for the eclectic beetroot and thyme. I went for the matcha doughnut, which has green tea icing on the outside and matcha-white chocolate cream on the inside.
It was by far the best doughnut I’ve had and I am a tough customer. My stomach is sensitive to greasiness and I’m a stickler for a fresh-tasting pastry. Crosstown Doughnuts met my marks with no problems at all.
Grabbing a doughnut in the middle of such an emotionally and psychologically heavy tour was a nice reprieve.
Although, I feel like enjoying such a delicious doughnut was even more of a testament to the decadence of Soho.