Soho Bombing: Streets of sleaze turned into London's fun village

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The Independent Online
SOHO, once the sleazy heart of the capital's sex industry, has been cleaned up over the past two decades by determined civic planners. By day, it is now a bustling commercial centre; by night its pubs, bars and restaurants draw thousands of Londoners and tourists.

Soho is also, famously, London's gay village, and Old Compton Street is its centre. The nail bombers waging a hate campaign against Britain's minorities could not have chosen a more symbolic place to strike at the country's gay community.

Even in these enlightened times, displays of homosexual affection remain discreet in many public places. On Old Compton Street, gay men stroll along hand in hand, out and proud.

Scores of businesses cater to the "pink pound"; there are gay taxi firms, gay builders and gay lawyers with premises in Soho, as well as dozens of coffee shops, bars and nightclubs where gay men and women congregate.

There are five thriving gay pubs in Old Compton Street alone, including the Admiral Duncan, where last night's bomb went off. Rainbow flags, symbolic of gay liberation, flutter in the street, proclaiming its identity as a heartland of homosexual culture. In nearby Rupert Street is Prowler Soho, which claims to be Europe's "first gay superstore".

Peter Tatchell, of the gay rights group OutRage!, said last night: "A lot of gay people saw the Old Compton Street area as a safe haven. They felt able to relax and hold hands without fear of attack. This outrage has destroyed that cosy assumption."

Soho is not just a gay playground. For Londoners of all persuasions it is one of the capital's most popular neighbourhoods for nightlife. At the last count there were 72 music and dance venues and 59 late-night cafes. In the evenings, particularly at weekends, the streets turn into a colourful, heaving mass of humanity and crowded pubs disgorge drinkers on to the pavements.

From pavement cafes and from sought-after tables outside restaurants, diners indulge in one of Soho's favourite pursuits: people-watching. All- night venues such as the long- established Bar Italia coffee shop ensure that the area continues to buzz long after the rest of the capital has gone to bed.

Soho is an important commercial centre, home to scores of shops and businesses, particularly film, advertising and publishing companies. EMI and Sony both have offices there. It is also a residential area, with 4,200 dwellers, and long ago it earned its place on the tourist map.

Despite the best efforts of Westminster City Council to sweep it off the streets, the sex is still there; shabby doorways lead to strip clubs, peep shows and video stores. But the place bears no resemblance to the Soho of the Fifties and Sixties, when it was a magnet for prostitutes, rent boys, strippers, gangsters, down-and-outs and sailors on shore leave.

Although its "gay village" image has been acquired only over the past decade, Soho has a rich homosexual heritage. It was there that Oscar Wilde, Cole Porter and Noel Coward cruised for partners. More chillingly, Dennis Nilsen, the serial killer, picked up his rent-boy victims in the Golden Lion pub in Dean Street.

Soho Square is home to not only The Edge - the bar that is one of the quarter's busiest contemporary gay hang-outs - but also St Patrick's Church, which contains a memorial to Radclyffe Hall, the once banned lesbian writer. It is also the location of the former home of William Beckford, a wealthy 18th- century gay man who consorted with men in the Seven Dials area - an activity he described as "kissing the holy relics".