Philly Used to Be a Cat Town. Now It’s Gone to the Dogs.
Screw you, New Philly, and your schnauzer too.
When I moved to this city fresh out of college in 1978, I brought with me my cat, Julio, who’d been living (illicitly) in my dorm room. I rented a ground-floor apartment at 21st and Walnut — it cost $145 a month — and Julio and I settled in. The married couple in the apartment next door, Geoff and Danielle, had a couple of cats. Jimmy, the gay guy who lived above them, had a Persian, and Liz, the girl who lived above me, had a loud Siamese. This was a city of cats then; you’d walk down the block and see them sitting in windows, dozing or eyeing pigeons dubiously.
We had cats because cats were suited to the way we lived. We were homebodies; there were so few reasons not to be. The city had hardly any good restaurants — Steve Poses had opened Frög, the sword-tip of the renaissance vanguard, five years earlier. There was Bookbinder’s — well, there were two of them — where no one could afford to eat, and there were joints like Little Pete’s, where anybody could. A few years earlier, Chestnut Street had been closed to private vehicles to create a “transitway” for pedestrians and buses. The result was a bleak, empty canyon slicing through the city. Muggings were rampant. There wasn’t any nightlife except for a bunch of cheap bars — McGlinchey’s, McGillen’s, Dirty Franks — whose surly, sullen bartenders (cheers, Ruthie!) would have laughed in your face if you’d asked about the cocktail du jour.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it?
It was great. Did I mention the $145 rent? There wasn’t any traffic, because nobody could afford cars. It was so safe to bike in the streets that I was a bike messenger for a few years. There was no such thing as social media, so no one cared that there was no place to go. You’d have the neighbors over for beers, then cook up some burgers or chicken while cats wrapped around your ankles. Why go out? Where to?
None of us had dogs. Dogs were for suburban tract houses, out where there were fences and kids. It wouldn’t be right to have a dog here. It would be heartless to leave it cooped up in a tiny apartment all day.
But you could leave a cat with a litter box and a big bowl of dry food while you went to the Shore or the Poconos for a weekend. And you would go to the Shore or the Poconos on weekends, because the city was old and bleak and gray. You kept your head down when you walked those mean streets. You got where you were going. You didn’t linger. There weren’t marathons or pop-up bars or Restaurant Weeks or Roots Picnics. We weren’t sharers. We kept cats, and we kept to ourselves.
I don’t know when the changeover began. I’m not sure when I started to see them — the dog people — out on the sidewalks and in the parks, strutting and smiling and greeting people they didn’t even know. Oh, maybe there had been a poodle or two in Rittenhouse Square in the old days, walked by a butler or prim Chanel-suited matron. But the two veterinarians closest to my apartment were cats-only. I don’t remember any pooper-scooper laws; instead, there were occasional polite signs suggesting that you PLEASE CURB YOUR DOG, which, for the uninitiated, means have it defecate in the gutter instead of on the sidewalk. No one was asking you to pick up that poop. There literally weren’t enough dogs for anybody to care.
Maybe the switch dates from 1980, when the first Broad Street Run was held. That same year, the Phillies won the World Series and then the Eagles went to the Super Bowl, startling us all. Or maybe it was in 1984, when developer Willard Rouse III announced that he was raising One Liberty Place, busting through the longstanding “gentleman’s agreement” that no building in Center City would be taller than City Hall. (Such a rebel!) Or 1991, when Ed Rendell was elected mayor of a city on the brink of bankruptcy and vowed to turn it around.
Rendell was big and gruff and loud, a transplant from New York, where they’ve always had dogs, because New Yorkers don’t care about anybody else’s quality of life. He had dogs — a succession of golden retrievers (what else?), Mandy and Maggie and Ginger and Royal. When Maggie died, Rendell penned a tribute that read, in part: “I lived on this earth for over 73 years and as a trained lawyer, the most persuasive empirical evidence I have found about the existence of God is that someone must have done something to create that special bond between dog and human. It exists for us with virtually no other animal and I can’t believe it was just an accident.”
If you’re touched by that, you must be new around here. Philadelphians are cat people — private people — and private people don’t emote this way. We might whisper in Kitty’s ear while cuddling her in our lap, but we don’t shout it from rooftops. We’re tidy as a litter box. We don’t slobber. We don’t wag our tails. We have dignity.
You have to stay a little removed, after all, in a city of rowhomes. You have to pretend you don’t overhear the couple next door arguing in bed, or notice the booze bottles in their trash can, or see the underwear hung out to dry in their backyard. You have to remain aloof — like a cat, you know? You mind your own business, addressing a paw with your tongue while the bill collector knocks just across the street. That’s the way our moms and dads were. That’s how we were, back before Ed Rendell.
Once, this was a city of suspicious nocturnal predators. Today, it’s home to cheerful tail-waggers, and the difference is as startling as Dorothy’s transition from Kansas to Technicolor Oz. There are now dozens of dog parks in Philly. There are bakeries that will make your dog a custom birthday cake, and doggie haberdashers where you can get Sparky suited up for your wedding or a holiday. There’s puppy yoga at breweries and Yappy Hours at bars. As I head into work along South Street, I pass two doggie daycares as well as an Unleashed by Petco (which has a self-serve dog wash so you can scrub the city grime off Rocky) and an outpost of the chic local chain Doggie Style Pets. There are Philly folks who’ll perform acupuncture on your dogs, and tattoo artists who adorn human arms and legs with canine faces. It’s a rare cafe that doesn’t have a doggy water bowl beside the outdoor tables. You can even bring your pup with you to work, if your employer is Urban Outfitters HQ or Neff Associates or Petplan, the Philly-based pet insurance company started by two Wharton students. There are dog walkers galore, along with trainers and groomers and therapists and psychics and programs where kids read to dogs. I and my kitty kin sit at home and marvel at this canine industrial complex. According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent $72.13 billion on Fluffy and Squeaky and Tug last year, with the annual cost of cat ownership two-thirds that of a dog, at $988 vs. $1,549. That cat cost is wildly inflated, btw, since it budgets $30 annually for toys. You only buy toys for your cat the first few months you have her, until you figure out she doesn’t give a damn about toys; she just wants to chew your houseplants.
Dogs, if I can be frank, are the spawn of success and gentrification. The Inquirer said so two years ago in an article called “If It Seems As If Dogs Are Everywhere in Philly’s Gentrifying Neighborhoods, They Are.” It quoted a Villanova economics prof, David Fiorenza, who says millennials are having dogs before they have children. A third — a third! — of American millennials who buy houses cite wanting more space for their dogs — a motivating factor that outranks marriage or the birth of a child. A WHYY report last year on gentrification in Grays Ferry quoted a longtime resident, 83-year-old Theodore Jackson, on the subject of his new neighbors: “They love them dogs.” Hey, that wasn’t a cat mask Chris Long put on.
One consequence of the influx of pups has been an influx of poop. Those “Curb your dog” signs are gone, replaced by ones warning of $300 fines for not picking up after your pet. (By “pet,” we don’t mean cat. And by “picking up,” we don’t mean putting that shit in a plastic bag and depositing it on someone else’s stoop.) If you want to get Old Philadelphia going, start a conversation on this subject. Beneath our (cattily) inscrutable expressions, many of us are seething with resentment toward doggy doo. “I see it everywhere,” one co-worker who lives in Rittenhouse hisses. “I stepped in some this morning,” another bitches. Neighborhood blogs froth at the mouth about the excrement situation. In 2018, Beth Ann Dombkowski, a resident of Passyunk Square, mounted a gallery exhibit of photos she took of dogs as they were pooping. In 2012, a Tacony man was shot to death by the guy two doors down for not picking up after his Chihuahua. Which reminds me: Earlier this year, a South Philly dog owner died after being punched, allegedly by another dog owner whom he’d asked to leash his pet.
Cat people don’t kill each other. We have no reason to.
Last April, the City of Philadelphia’s verified Twitter account tweeted out:
ANNOUNCEMENT: After noticing that our top audience interest is DOGS, we have decided to become a dog and cat rating account. Reply with your dog and cat pictures and we’ll rate them.
The “and cat” was a sop; felines were nowhere on the accompanying chart, which showed the account’s audience interest in dogs at a staggering 100 percent, ahead of “weather,” tech news” and even politics. Granted, the tweet went out on April 1st. But even on April Fools’ Day, the joke worked because it rang true: Who doesn’t love dogs?
Once upon a time, Philadelphians didn’t. Back in the day, this city’s sports heroes were cat-like loners like Allen Iverson and Mike Schmidt. Now, New Philadelphia has rallied to goofy Cameroonian wolfhound Joel Embiid and bulldog Bryce Harper. The favored writers in my salad days were embittered sourpusses — Stu Bykofsky, Christine Flowers, Buzz Bissinger. In March, the Inquirer — the city’s newspaper of record — started a new Sunday section, “The UpSide,” that prints only good news. Yippee, puppies and rainbows all around!
This city you kids are making is a foreign place to us — bright and happy and colorful and buzzing with life. It has parklets and bike lanes and hammocks you can hang in. It’s got more City Council candidates than you can throw a stick for. It wins all kinds of awards — for new architecture, new recreational venues, new chefs. It’s been declared best place to visit and City of the Year. Its sports teams are in ascendance. Clearly, you newcomers think this relentless assault of excellence will pound down our native gloom and let the sun shine in. Haven’t we ever heard of cats’ bad habits — that they hang out with witches and suck the breath from babies? Don’t we want our faces licked?
Um, no. No, we don’t, thank you. We’re into pain; isn’t that obvious from the public officials we elect? We’re proud that Slate recently labeled cats “the world’s most uncooperative research subject,” and that a study in the journal Animal Cognition concluded that “the behavioral aspects of cats that cause their owners to become attached to them are still undetermined.” You dumb kids, we loved this place when it was a pit.
So go ahead and encourage us to adopt our very own bowwow buddies. Keep telling us how comforting a dog would be in our dotage. Go on saying: “You think you love that cat. Wait till you try a pup.” Sashay past us with that dachshund dolled up in a Rhys Hoskins jersey, or your chow chow with the lion cut, or that terrier with the tie-dyed hair. Woo us with research on how people who share their homes with canines are healthier, happier, and less likely to be visited by thieves. We’re Philadelphians. We know exactly what you’re up to. A new study from Penn Med says the number of olds who suffered bone fractures from walking their dogs more than doubled from 2004 to 2017. A full 17 percent of the total injuries were hip fractures, which just happen to give us a 30 percent chance of dying within a year. You kids may be yanking at the leash to take over this town. But Kitty and I will just wave from the window, thanks.
Published as “It’s a Dog-Eat-Cat World” in the June 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.