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Who is the true Urban Homesteader (TM)?

February 20, 2011 | 11:34 am

Urban_homestead
For more than a decade, the Dervaes family of Pasadena has labored to turn their one-fifth-acre lot into a self-sufficient, sustainable farm. When the Los Angeles Times checked in with them in 2007, they were producing much of their own power, although they hadn't gone entirely off the grid yet. There were still some foodstuffs they'd buy, but they'd regularly sell produce and duck eggs to local restaurants.

"People thought, and I did too, that we couldn't make it on such a small piece of land," patriarch Jules Dervaes told The Times. But he decided "we're going to grow as much as we can on this property for a living. I was going to live off this come hell or high water."

In the years that Dervaes has been doing his urban gardening thing, the ideas and practices have become widely popular. Our own Susan Carpenter tried a two-year experiment in eco-living, discovering what worked (gray water reuse) and some hard lessons (backyard chickens make easy prey, even in the city). Not surprisingly, bookstores now stock a plethora of memoirs, guides and how-to books that address the project of city folk living sustainably.

This is complicated by the fact that in October 2010, Dervaes trademarked the phrases Urban Homestead and Urban Homesteading. According to the O.C. Weekly, he recently has been sending out cease-and-desist letters to those using the phrase, including KCRW's radio show "Good Food" (which had used it in a blog post) and the Santa Monica Public Library, which held a free event on the topic.

One book has gotten caught up in Dervaes' campaign: "The Urban Homestead" by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen. The authors, who also live here in L.A., published the book in 2008 and maintain a blog with tips and chronicles of their sustainable-living efforts. Apparently the recipients of one of Dervaes' letters, they have, according to BoingBoing, found legal representation with the Electronic Freedom Foundation. (They did not respond to request for comment. It's OK: They're probably in the yard, mulching).

When the book came out, Knutzen spoke to the L.A. Times. Back then, we asked him about the now-trademarked term Urban Homestead. Knutzen explained:

It's a phrase that's been floating around since the '70s.  That's the earliest I've seen a reference to an "Urban Homestead." The magazine Mother Earth News, a classic resource for back-to-the-land hippies, and still a wonderful resource, had a bunch of stories in the 1970s that used the expression "Urban Homestead."

There's also a classic example in Berkeley from the early 1970s that was an experiment in self-reliant living in the city called the Integral Urban House. It was a very ambitious project based in Berkeley aimed at setting up a self-reliant urban household. For instance, they had fish ponds with bee hives over the fish ponds. The dead bees would fall into the ponds, providing food for the fish. The goal was to apply principles of the back-to-the-land movement to living in the city.

Interestingly, Knutzen expressed some dissatisfaction with his book's title, saying, "the word homestead suggests a sort of Little House on the Prairie, completely self-sufficient life.  Our focus isn't on that kind of extreme living but on small things that anyone can do."

Which probably did not include getting involved in legal tusslings over sustainable-living phraseology.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: At top left, Jules Dervaes in 2007. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

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