Evoking Harlem’s early 20th century penchant for rent parties, Piper Dellums, now a full-time Hill resident, is bringing to Idyllwild a self-help event on Oct. 8.
After a severe personal trauma, Dellums moved to the Hill where she sought peace and solitude. She was fragile and did not know anyone. Eventually, while in the throes of despair from breast cancer, a neighbor secretly paid some of her medical expenses and helped Dellums through the ordeal.
Four years later, recovered and rejuvenated, Dellums has found a unique way to involve Hill residents and assist neighbors.
In the 1920s, rents began soaring on Harlem properties — both residential and commercial. Neighbors organized parties and local musicians, often also in need of rent money, came and played. People showed up, listened and donated money, which was then distributed among the needy to pay their next month’s rent.
Blues and jazz were the new rhythms and they filled the stairways and courtyards with sounds. The improvisational nature of jazz was especially congruent with these parties since many of the musicians did not regularly play together.
“It was a selfless helping of one another,” Dellums pointed out. A former workaholic and world traveler, Dellums said she needed space and comfort, which the Hill afforded.
About six months ago, believing she was healed, Dellums decided she could go back to work. She left the mountain for New York City only to discover how much she missed the Hill and its community, which she describes as her “pillar of salvation.”
“The only thing I heard [in New York City] was sounds of discord,” she said. “My inner peace was usurped and I missed my mountain family.”
Upon returning, she tried to imagine what she could do to repay the kindness and care, when she recalled the history of the “rent parties.”
The idea has blossomed and many people are helping her organize and arrange the day. Musicians have volunteered to play, there will be a silent auction, and refreshments have been donated.
Some of the musicians who have volunteered to perform include Paul Carman, Marshall Hawkins, Don Reed, Sandii Castleberry, Peter Davidson, Daniel Jackson and Carlos Reynosa. Not only musicians, but artists of all talents will be involved and attending. Actor Coley Mustafa Speaks, who has been in “Coldcase,” “Harry’s Law,” “NCIS,” and “Men in Black 3.” will be performing Langston Hughes, in memory and reflection of the original rent parties of the Harlem Renaissance.
Dellums’ optimism sees several thousand dollars being collected and then divided up among many, including possibly a local business. This would be a way of thanking the business community on the Hill, too, she said.
The Rent Party begins at noon, Monday, Oct. 8 and goes to 5 p.m. It will be held at a Fern Valley private residence at 25445 Seneca Drive. While many will think of Oct. 8 as Columbus Day, Reynosa has proclaimed it “Indigenous Day,” according to Dellums.
For those who need assistance, Dellums urges them to come between noon and 1 p.m. to submit their names.