Backyard chicken farmer gives City Hall a pecking

“The eggs were delicious!” a neighbor passing on the street calls to Malaika Hart. Hart waves back.

“They’re a community builder,” Hart says of her chickens, which live in a donated coop on her West Philly property off 52ndStreet just north of Girard Avenue, where she lives with here 3-year-old daughter, two dogs and a beehive.

“We give away eggs free to all our neighbors. … A lot of kids walking by have never seen a chicken before. They’ve never seen a tomato growing before.”

Hart has become a prominent figure in the Philadelphia subculture of amateur chicken farmers after she shared with the world that a city judge last week threw out thousands of dollars in fines for raising livestock that she’d refused to pay.

Hart is proud of her chickens and of her property – known as the One Art Community Center, a registered 501©(3) nonprofit – which also includes a vegetable garden, a fruit orchard, a music performance space, and an earthship-in-progress (a structure built entirely of recycled materials, including tires).

“It’s just having pets, food, and other benefits,” she said of her chickens.

Hart said she first received citations ordering her to pay the city fines about a year ago over the presence of her chickens, as well as for trash – which she considers ironic, given that her art center sits on a former junkyard which her late husband cleaned up.

Hart decided the fines were unjust, so she decided to fight it, bringing pictures of children playing with her chickens, and planning to argue for the benefit of keeping poultry.

“I decided, ‘I’m not sending in cash, I’m not going to expend energy at this point,’” she said. “I just wanted to show the unity of backyard chickens.”

Instead, she said, when she got to small claims court on May 18, an administrative judge glanced at the photos and tossed all the fines.

“She looked at the pictures, she didn’t ask me about them,” Hart recalled. “Then she said ‘All charges are dropped.’”

A court spokesman was unable to locate records of the court case by press time Monday evening.

But Hart’s small act of civic disobedience may be a sign that judges aren’t willing to uphold the city’s ban on chickens at private residences. Philadelphia has a wide subculture of chicken enthusiasts who already raise poultry in their backyards despite the ban, including at another farm just blocks from Hart’s property

“Regular people love chickens,” Hart said, listing the benefits beyond the eggs: their droppings serve as fertilizer, they eat bugs, and children treat them like pets. “We haven’t bought eggs since we got them. … We get eggs every day.”

Hart doesn’t know how she drew the city’s attention, but believes someone reported her. The coop is clean and doesn’t smell, and there are few neighbors nearby who might have been bothered by any noise.

“Hopefully, whoever it was, has gotten some eggs since then.”