Forest Hills and Hens

» April 20th, 2014

There was an intriguing and generally well-framed piece on backyard chickens in the Times yesterday. The story centers on a Queens family—the Sayes—who purchased hens so their 5-year old daughter Scarlet could eat hormone-free eggs. Nothing would seem especially notable about this situation except for the fact that the Queens family lives in the Forest Hills section of the borough, one of the wealthiest and most tightly covenanted neighborhoods in the city. The only farm animals allowed in Forest Hills are dead farm animals.

Wealth, in essence, complicates the story’s premise. The family built their beloved birds a $2500 coop to ensure they don’t succumb to predators, thereby upsetting Scarlet and subjecting her to common eggs. Although living in a neighborhood that physically embodies the cream of capitalism’s crop, the heritage breeds currently allow the family to rise above capitalism’s more mundane manifestations, such as the everyday grocery store. “You can’t buy these eggs in a supermarket,” the mother remarks with pride.

This kind of privilege generally does a poor job of preparing its beneficiaries for the experience of being told “no.” But that’s exactly what’s happening to the Sayes. The Times‘ Corey Kilgannon writes, “Ms. Saye has been ordered by the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation, which manages the neighborhood, to get rid of the chickens. In a recent letter, corporation officials cited the nuisances section of a century-old homeowners’ covenant.”

Ms. Saye condemns the rules as antiquated. To her credit, the covenant is 101 years old. It forbids not only farm animals, but a number of other potentially noisome occupations, including breweries, insane asylums, tallow makers, malt houses, and, of course, slaughterhouses. In other words, Forest Hills is a neighborhood that can afford to write off the unpleasantries of production to the periphery so consumption at the center can happen with a minimum fuss and muss.

In so far as DIY farming of animals has become the purview of privileged urbanites, Saye’s protest prompts a critical question: how far are these urbanites willing to take their ideological quest to bring the periphery back to the center? On what basis, after all, should some activities be reincorporated while others are left out?

Not too long ago, Nicolette Hahn Niman, a rabid supporter of “humane” animal agriculture, called for localizing slaughterhouses. So, if urbanites are seriously keyed up to bring farm animals back to the hood, it only seems fair that that they democratize space to allow room for the other potentially unpleasant operations their ancestors legislated to the hinterlands.

My sense is that family’s like the Sayes have little interest in bringing full-scale chicken farming back to Forest Hills. There’s no evidence that the goal is to make hormone-free eggs from genetically rarified breeds accessible to all. The Sayes just do what the Says want to do. And, like many people who seek to selectively reincorporate nonindustrial methods of production into the urban landscape, the power of privilege backs them up.

Highlighting the inconsistency of wanting coops but not slaughterhouses reminds us of the slow historical process that led Forest Hills to establish the covenant it created in the first place. Undoing that process might have to be done one hen at a time, but those who advocate rearguard measures should be prepared for a slew of new and less desirable neighbors. Beginning, perhaps, with an insane asylum.

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