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.

13 Responses to Forest Hills and Hens

  1. John T. Maher says:

    If New York City may be said to be a large open air insane asylum, then Forest Hills is the locus of PPD or Paranoid Personality Disorder where everyone spends all their time imagining slights and insults asserting presumed rights. Forest Hills itself is a cliche from the wide lapel and mustache days and, along with Roslyn, Long Island, is sort of a code word for tackiness. The term “bridge and tunnel crowd” applies to the mentality associated with Forest Hills more than is geographical location. So what I am saying is that Forest Hills may be atypical: the residents may actually welcome further intra-resident conflict with each other as a means of justifying their own existence and the hens are dislocated from the ethical and legal issues in the psyches of the Forest Hills people who only care about their own narcissistic desires actualized in real time. This Foucault’s Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique reads more lick a script for Forest Hillls than an analytical work in context.

  2. On an aside, I can only chuckle when I hear people talk about “hormone-free meat.” There is no such thing. All animals’ bodies contain hormones, how else do they think animals can grow, develop, nurse and sustain young?

  3. Mountain says:

    “wanting coops but not slaughterhouse”

    Isn’t that exactly what vegans (and anyone else claiming to care about animals) should want. Coops, or whatever word you want to use for homes, are places for living. Slaughterhouses are places for mass killing. There is no inconsistency in wanting the former, not the latter.


    “There’s no evidence that the goal is to make hormone-free eggs from genetically rarefied breeds accessible to all.”

    Which is the beautiful thing about freedom. All the Sayes have to do is tolerate the same freedom for others as they want for themselves, and those who want hormone-free eggs will have access to them. The Sayes don’t have to make that goal happen, they just have to stay out of its way.

  4. Donna says:

    Reading your blog entries makes my blood run cold.

    The combination of your imperiousness and the blackest of cynicism would be bad enough. But add in a fairly agile intellect, a whiff of vicious tenacity, and what the Irish call “just pure badness”, and it is my considered opinion that you should be watched. Or shunned. Or both.

  5. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    The more I read and listen ( Public Radio stations) to topics now somewhat more readily covered on the humane farming issue, the more I realize how very FEW we who hold to our Vegan ideology are. The constant patter, the constant ‘foodie’ chat, the unthinking and blithe incomprehension of the reality of the slaughter process and the billions slaughtered, is alive and well on even PBS stations from which I naively expected more sensitivity but NO. Oh, we are so few ! I suspect it will be EVER thus! A most depressing reality.

    • charley says:

      I wondered when the vegan “religion” would appear, overly sensitive and taking something like this blog post personally. Yes, you do belong to a tiny minority – for many reasons, no need to go into them all here. But the overall explanation is that very, very few people have the time to get enough B12 in a vegan diet, and many do not respond to supplements. Vitamin B12 deficiency is debilitating. For one thing, it creates depression, which is a factor in this feeling of persecution and muddled thought process. If you are so deeply offended by “foodie” chat, and other people’s blithe and unthinking denial of life’s reality – that all living things die, PBS cannot help you. The problem is, you expect all of society to believe what you believe, and don’t seem satisfied with living your life as kind and gentle as possible. The vegans I have met, well, without denial, they just can’t go on living, especially when society reminds them of the simple fact that Something Dies for Something Else to Live. That’s not an opinion, or a philosophy, but the way the world works, in spite of all the rationalizations necessary to hang on to the untenable beliefs of veganism. I applaud all human efforts to reduce and prevent suffering, but then I go to the grocery store and read a (marketing) label on a dozen eggs that proudly proclaims that the chickens were fed a Vegetarian Diet. Huh? Sigh.

  6. Mountain says:

    One of the neighbors said:

    “They’re quiet and not really noticeable,” he said, “and she’s keeping them for healthy living, not for slaughter.”

    I think that sums up the situation. There’s no reason to consider them a nuisance, and there’s no reason to treat them any differently from any other species of pet in the neighborhood. Of course, non-vegans don’t tend to give much thought to speciesism, but it would be nice to see someone point this out to the Home Owners Association (HOA).

    A contract is a contract, and by living in Forest Hills Gardens, the Sayes have contractually bound themselves to follow the rules of the HOA. That said, the HOA should have the sense to modernize their rules, and allow the keeping of animal species that may have been traditional farm animals, but are now treated as pets.

    If not, the Sayes could always move. A million-plus will buy a lot of land if they’re willing to live a little farther from New York City.

  7. AWM says:

    ALL eggs are ‘hormone free’. Chickens- whether layers or meat poultry are nt given hormones. When you see the “hormone free” label on poultry, it’s a marketing ploy… to make you thi k you are getting something that is somehow better.

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