London activists fight to keep a supermarket branch. It is the last affordable store in historic Soho.

Street scene in London Soho with people passing by

One of the cultural focal points on Dean Street in the once subcultural Soho: the Soho Theater Photo: IMAGO/Tayfun Salc

At first glance, Dean Street in Soho is nothing special. A street like many others in London's West End, if it weren't for the numerous personalities associated with its relatively recent history by London standards.

Many things have happened on this street, which is only 500 meters long: Mozart gave a concert in 1764, when he was eight years old, Admiral Nelson stayed in one of his houses before the battle of Trafalgar, Dickens tried his luck as an actor in a theater. Marx and Engels lived here. Artists such as Fred Astaire, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud frequented the clubs and bars of Dean Street, and during the Second World War the French Resistance around Charles de Gaulle met in a pub.

Recently, the inconspicuous street has a strange history. It revolves around a branch of Tesco, the largest British supermarket chain in the world with almost 5,000 stores. It made headlines earlier this year when it became the first supermarket to be designated an “Asset of Community Value”.

The term “Asset of Community Value,” which translates as “value to the community,” dates back to a 2011 law. It allows citizen initiatives to encourage municipalities to better protect places and facilities from change, demolition or displacement unwanted and grant them a right of first refusal in the event of sale.

It is mainly used to preserve buildings, cultural institutions or green spaces that create identity. The fact that an ordinary supermarket, especially one owned by retail giant Tesco, would benefit from the law is a novelty. Citizen initiatives usually campaign against chain stores and not for them.

A “nation of cloned cities”

Tesco, although a symbol of British business success to many, knows a thing or two about it. The group was repeatedly criticized for its business practices to the detriment of competitors and smaller suppliers and repeatedly encountered resistance when attempting to open new locations. For example, in Bristol, where protests against a new branch sparked riots in 2011, the “Tesco Riot”.

The protests in Bristol were notable for their intensity and the expression of a suspicion that continues to this day towards large retail groups and the impact of their market power. Back in 2004, the New Economics Foundation warned in a widely acclaimed report that chain stores were spreading like “weeds” and would turn the country into a “nation of clone cities.” At the same time, the group of experts praised citizen initiatives that “bravely resist the attack of the clones.”

The “clone city” effect has been a problem in Soho for decades. Investor projects, gentrification and growing tourist flows have led the district to be seen as an example of how a district is gradually losing its identity. London's legendary nightlife hub remains vibrant, but has lost much of its atmosphere over the years.

The cultural avant-garde once strolled through Soho, marginalized groups found their place here and subculture flourished. Today the monotony of consumption that can also be found in many other parts of the world dominates. Where once owner-managed stores ensured diversity, interchangeability of global brands and fashions now reigns.

The Soho Society intervenes

However, Soho would not be Soho if there was no resistance to this development. The Soho Society, an initiative that emerged in the 1970s in response to the planned demolition of much of the district, has been committed to preserving owner-operated shops and cultural institutions since its inception. It may be even more surprising that it was she who advocated for the Dean Street Tesco to be designated as an Asset of Community Value when it appeared to be at risk due to a planned new building.

From the Soho Society's perspective, this was logical. A supermarket is part of a liveable area, they argue, and Tesco is the only store left offering Soho's approximately 3,000 residents and its thousands upon thousands of visitors a wide selection of affordable food. Such irony would undoubtedly have made Karl Marx smile.

In the food desert

Two worlds collide in Soho: that of abundance and that of scarcity. For those indulging in luxury, there's everything from handmade chocolate truffles to matcha lattes and custom-made, sustainably sourced leather shoes. But getting simple staples is a challenge.

The term “food desert,” commonly used to describe low-income neighborhoods that lack adequate access to fresh food, takes on new meaning here. Soho is not a low-income area (although thanks to some remaining social housing there are still low-income people living in the area) nor is it lacking in shopping opportunities per se. What is missing are cheap stores for everyday needs.

The Soho Society's engagement represents an interesting turn in urban activism in the context of increasing gentrification and touristification around the world: unlike the well-known “David versus Goliath” battles such as in Bristol, the focus here is on fight for an established local supplier. .

This is not completely new. Until a few years ago, citizen initiatives in Berlin-Kreuzberg fought vehemently (and ultimately unsuccessfully) to preserve an Aldi store. These incidents raise interesting questions: What constitutes “community value”? And what is important to maintain livable and inclusive neighborhoods?

These questions are also being asked a few miles away in Stoke Newington. The feared – and now probably avoided – closure of Rochester Castle had sparked protests in recent months. The pub is appreciated by people from different backgrounds, also because the beer here is cheaper than the competition. If you didn't know better, you'd think The Rochester Castle was an independent neighborhood pub, but it's part of Wetherspoons, the UK's largest pub chain.