by Vahan Ishkhanyan
In 1998, there were 197 cafés in the city center (Kendron district) of Yerevan. Today, there are 427, and the number is increasing. Considering the center's population of about 130,000, that means there is one café per 304 residents.
Comparisons must rely on approximation rather than hard data. But a casual stroll in Yerevan any night between May and October would offer evidence that this may be the per-capita café capital of this continent. (They are not "cafés", officially, but "objects of public catering", a hold over category from Soviet times.)
Where once city parks held green spaces and benches for public rest, a seat now comes with a price—at least the cost of a cup of coffee (about 50 cents), and open greenery has been replaced with jarringly bright advertisement umbrellas. The latest trend, in fact—proudly displayed in such places as Astral and Jazzve—is to pave over parks and replace them, not with simply chairs and tables, but with plush accommodations that turn the out-of-doors into something approximating open-air living rooms.
For about four months out of the year, these cafés apparently bring enough revenue to justify the fact that they are limited to seasonal operation. In some cases, owners of cafés also own restaurants with indoor service year-round.
From easy business opportunity to phenomenon
"In the beginning, the reasons for building cafés were different than now," says Lyudmila Harutiunian, the Head of the Sociology Department of the Yerevan State University. "Medium-sized business was not developed and it was difficult to produce competitive goods for foreign markets. The market was narrow, the borders were closed—and remain so.
"As the sphere of service required little investment people began to open cafés. If it was possible to earn money on something, they capitalized on that. Today the situation is different. Running a café has become a lucrative business. The jostle for vital locations is constant. Competition is for a narrow territory and it is clearly seen how they seize sidewalks and lawns."
A good monthly income of a café in central Yerevan is about $12,000.
But the owner of one of the most popular cafés says that he gets an average of 3,000 customers per day. And only about 10 percent are there simply for a 50-cent cup of coffee.
It is worth noting that, while the mushroom growth of cafés is phenomenal, café culture has always been a distinguishing mark of Yerevan. At a time when Soviet cities were made from the same mold, Yerevan was known throughout the USSR for its abundance of open-air cafés. It was even joked that cleaning ladies would bark at lingering customers: "Those of you who have been sitting here since yesterday, get out!"
Today, the image of "the poor Armenians" is hardly upheld if café season in the capital is the scale by which well being is measured.
And nowhere is the picture of a city at ease more vivid than in the area around the Opera House, a Yerevan landmark.
Where, in the late 1980s, thousands stood in the yards to rally for a free Karabakh and give the place its informal name "Freedom Square", today thousands sit and sip in what has become a café mall, practically obscuring the famous and recently renovated majestic home of the musical arts.
The park is some 50,000 square meters, and over the past four years has been divided up—mostly by government officials who have taken over the property out-right, or by having it purchased in the name of a relative—into 15 cafés with about 300 tables where empty seats are a summertime rarity.
In the greater area ringing the park, there are 70 cafés on 115 hectares.
In general, and especially in the prime location of Opera Square, owning a café in Yerevan isn't a simple business purchase. Like much of the way commerce is carried out in the capital, nepotism rules. It is popularly believed that among owners of the most prominent cafés are the former Minister of National Security, under whose administration the property was privatized, the Minister of Defense, the elected Prefect of the Kendron district, the Minister of Nature Preservation and various Members of Parliament. It is generally understood, too, that anyone who starts up a café—or any other business for that matter—must first get the approval of the person to whom all rights for the area "belong".
While the city center has become a capital of casual consumption, the expense has been the destruction of green space that once was a haven of free escape from the noise and dirt of a compact city.
There are significantly fewer cafés in the suburbs. For example, in the district of Ajapnyak, five kilometers from the city center, there are about 20 cafés. With 106,600 residents, there is about one café for every 5,330 residents.
Even official architects admit that the appearance of the city center has been distorted by cafés taking over green areas.
"Of course, all this is abnormal, but we need to be patient, it will get to normal," says Armen Lalayants, deputy to the chief architect of the city. He hopes that the time will come when the café phenomenon will pass as a fashion, and the way will be cleared again for green areas.
"Visiting a café in Armenia is the reflection of a Mediterranean culture," says Harutiunian. "Armenians like living in a community which is not typical for northern peoples."
The cost of "a cup of coffee"
At least 130 cafés have been constructed on property that was previously public park. According to the data of the Social-Ecological Association, between 1995-2002 the city lost more that 1,000 hectares of public green territories because of construction—including cafés. Meanwhile, the planting of greenery decreased to 3.6 percent. It was 30.6 percent in 1986.
Srbuhi Harutiunian, head of the Social-Ecological Association, is among activists who are disturbed to see construction in general, and oligarch-owned cafés in particular rob Yerevan of its greenery.
She cites a World Health Organization study that says city residents need 50 square meters of green territories per resident to have healthy oxygen intake.
According to Harutiunian's research, in 1986 Yerevan had 42.3 square meters of green for each resident. By 1995, the number had decreased to 27.6 square meters. And, today, there are only 4.5 square meters of green space for each of the capital's one million residents. By comparison: Moscow has 18 square meters of green space per resident.
During a 60-year period of development in Yerevan city planners created 1,930 hectares of public green space. Today there are only 503 hectares left. And, significantly, 77 percent of the loss occurred in the past eight years—long after Armenia's energy crisis was the cause for the cutting of trees.
One of the most outrageous examples cited by journalists as a moral violation was a report last year that the Minister of Nature Protection, the very guardian of Armenia's ecology, had dug up evergreen trees from one of the republic's few nature preserves and replanted them around a café owned by his wife, where the trees soon wilted and died.
Stopping the further loss of green space has become a celebrated cause in Yerevan media. Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have been founded with the express purpose of saving whatever is left. But protests have had practically no impact.
Harutiunian, the sociologist, says that one of the causes of the easy appropriation of green areas is that Yerevan retains a village mentality and has never formed a culture of a modern urban society. It is not accidental that in some regions of the city, cows are pastured in lawns.
"The small city was destroyed in the 1960s, the village filled the city and the village absorbed the city in itself instead of the opposite," Harutiunian says. "As a result, the tradition of city values—especially parks—has disappeared."
The sociologist says, too, that the popularity of cafés—in spite of the disdain with which they are viewed by some—is an indication of an emerging middle class.
"The cafés of the center became the sitting place for the bourgeoisie," says Harutiunian. "Who visits a café? Those who visit it are a newly born middle class but not a stratum that forms the country's policy..."