When chickens are more than chickens

I don’t want my own chickens, but if Albany can’t legalize them without bedlam ensuing, what hope do we have?

funny thing happens every time someone proposes legalizing chickens around here: people tend to lose their damn minds.

It happened eight years ago when an ordinance to legalize chicken-keeping in the city was vetoed, and with a new proposal on the table it feels like it might be happening again.

The prospect of a handful of hens strutting and pecking around a neighbor’s yard elicits a level of frenzy in Albany typically reserved for bike lanes, linear parks and gondolas.

It seems like an awful lot of work to me, keeping chickens. To be honest, my hands are full just keeping the smaller human members of my family fed, comfortable and a safe distance from foxes, etc.

But this isn’t really about chickens — not in the larger sense. It’s about the image Albany projects of the kind of city it is and wants to be.

This has never really been about chickens.

It’s easy to dismiss aspiring urban chicken-keepers as Pollyanna. But the desire to be closer to your food and to make small-but-meaningful changes to live more sustainably is something we should strive to emulate, not ridicule.

The fact that keeping chickens alone won’t reverse climate change or lead to a fully sustainable city is a straw man. Small steps do matter. And if they don’t, we all might as well just give up now.

At the same time, it’s not hard to see why opponents respond so viscerally to what they see as a threat to the character of their neighborhoods — even if it likely isn’t. Maybe it’s not so much the chickens as the notion that the city they’ve known for decades or a lifetime is changing in a way that seems contrary to their idea of what a city ought to be and according to the desires of people who, in some cases, aren’t from here.

When you are invested in a place, change is unsettling. Outright dismissing these concerns is foolish and counterproductive, especially when they are rooted in wanting to preserve what it is that those people like best about the city. It deepens resentments and obscures common interests.

And that’s the kicker. This is fundamentally a debate among people who have one defining thing in common: They have chosen to live in Albany.

That’s not a small thing in our largely suburban region — and it means that would-be urban chicken-keepers in Albany probably have a lot more in common with the opponents than they do with, say, a farmer in Delanson.

This is fundamentally a debate among people who have one defining thing in common: They have chosen to live in Albany.

They presumably also share a common desire to see Albany thrive. Which brings me back to my point about this not really being about chickens.

Like many cities, Albany’s challenges — financially, socially and from an infrastructure perspective — are such that it needs to grow in order to thrive. We need more people to make the same choice that we’ve made to support Albany’s schools, libraries, businesses and other institutions.

What we can’t afford is to be is a place that reflexively says no.

We can’t afford to think too narrowly about what a city is and isn’t — and send people who don’t conform to that vision packing for the suburbs, or Troy or Schenectady. We can’t afford to try to ride out our problems.

Cities across the United States are making strides to reverse bad urban policies (I see you, Interstate 787) that damaged them. Albany can, too, and it need not start with a wrecking ball on the riverfront. Small steps do matter.

It’s true; bike lanes alone won’t make Albany thrive. Chickens alone won’t make Albany thrive. The Skyway alone won’t make Albany thrive. But collectively they speak to an openness to new ideas — even if those ideas sometimes don’t work out — that might. No one wants to invest in a community grounded by inertia.

So what’s really at stake here?

There is nothing about the current chicken proposal that is irreversible should it turn out to be as problematic as opponents fear. It’s written so restrictively that it’s hard to imagine how it could be that bad.

And if we cannot collectively manage this one very modest thing, then how can we possibly hope to tackle the far larger challenges the city faces — like what to do about abandoned buildings and delinquent property owners, neighborhoods coping with the generational effects of concentrated poverty, where to send our trash once our landfill is full or finding affordable solutions to prevent our aging sewers from flooding our neighborhoods?

Albany is better than that. How can we not be better than that?

We can be a city that says yes in a way that is thoughtful and respectful of competing opinions. We can be a city that tackles small things and big things at the same time. Being open doesn’t mean acting desperate; it doesn’t mean saying yes to everything.

We need to be aware that when we say no to things like chickens — small things that many other communities have done with far less controversy — we’re actually sending a larger message that may be harmful to the long-term vibrancy of a place we all want to see succeed.

I also recognize that I need to practice what I preach.

So, starting today, no more cheap jokes about the gondola.

Former newspaper guy now in public higher ed. — Albany, NY.

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