Cats. Humans have obsessed over these animals for thousands of years. Egyptians sanctified them, some early modern Germans burned them and accused them of serving the devil, French aristocracy hailed them as elegant pets, while modern Tumblr users just think they’re cute, and post millions of photos of them a day. Certainly, people’s obsession with felines runs deep. However, city dwellers across the globe are finding themselves unable to enjoy the company of pets. What seems as an ordinary thing, owning a cat, has becoming a luxury for many people living in large urban areas.
New York is one of many places in the word where owning a cat is an achievement. With the average rent in Manhattan being $3,824, few people can afford a big enough apartment to fit a cat and its litter box. And fewer people have the time. With its fast paced tempo, many New Yorkers spend less time at home than anywhere else, which makes owning a pet downright impossible. Add to the mix the growing trend of banning pets in apartment buildings, and owning a cat becomes an exotic luxury for the average city dweller. For many New Yorkers of today, and likely most New Yorkers of the future, cats exist solely as gifs on the Tumblr feed.
This phenomenon is not new. In pre-Revolutionary France, cats were a status symbol, a marker of the bourgeoisie. As historian Robert Darnton, head of the Harvard University library, explains in his chapter “Workers Revolt” from his classic The Great Cat Massacre, cats often became the victims of class struggle, due to bourgeois masters treating their pets better than their workers. The working class hated cats, and saw them as a representation of leisure and injustice of the bourgeois class.
In today’s New York, cats may very well end up amidst a class struggle once more.
In April of this year, Purina One, a company that produces various products for felines, such as food, litter, etc, opened a pop-up cat café. The attendance was obscene. Thousands of people flooded New York’s Bowery district at the crack of dawn, some coming from as far as Illinois, in order to stand for up to 8 hours in line, all to get 30 minutes in a café filled with cats.
The pop-up café lasted only 3 days, but managed to welcome thousands of visitors. The popularity of the establishment showed not only just how obsessed we are with cats, but how many people do not have the ability to have their own cats. For many children in line, the café offered their first ever opportunity to pet a real life feline.
This situation is by no means unique to New York. In the past year, over a 100 cat cafés have opened in Europe and North America. New York’s first permanent cat café, Meow Parlour, opened on December 15th, 2014. However, in Asia, this trend started decades ago.
The world’s first recorded cat café “Cat Garden” opened in Taiwan in 1998. Rapid urbanization left many people living in tiny apartments. “Cat Garden” catered to a growing number of cat lovers who could not afford to have a cat. Patrons paid for time spent with the cats, and received green tea as part of the package. The cats were all owned by the owner of the café, and lived in his home when they were not working. The enterprise was a success, and sparked a trend that spread like wildfire over large urban centers in Asia.
Today, cat cafés are more popular than ever. Tokyo became the most famous center for cat cafés, with 39 operating in the city today. Incidently, the number of cat cafés seems to correlate to the city’s growing population and rent prices.
However, cat cafés signify a growing problem. Soon, if people will not be able to afford to have cats, or see cats, then there will be people who cannot afford to pay exorbitant café fees, and thus, will not have the opportunity to spend time with cats at all.
Generally, the cat cafés have patrons paying a cover fee for a specific time spent with the cats. Some include coffee in their cover charge while others do not. In Tokyo, the cover charge ranges from $4 per hour to $25. With the minimum wage in New York City being $8.75 at the start of 2015, it is quite obvious that lower income families will not be able to afford the luxury of cat cafes. Perhaps, that is the point.
In Tokyo, cat cafés have become places not only of cat worship, but exclusivity. The establishments attract not only regular feline fans, but artists, creative managers, hipsters, and generally well to do upper middle class citizens. Like any other café, cat cafes are paid spaces for people to interact. They are exclusionary by principle of price. The proliferation of cat cafés is reminiscent of the French bourgeoisie’s attempts to separate themselves from the working classes, by speaking a different language, keeping different hours, separating spaces and pastimes. Cat cafés represent the growing exclusivity and economic status associated with class.
- Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History