Rent Parties

Harlem. The 1920s. ‘The Hustle’ was all that was on people’s minds because money was, literally, too tight to mention.

It’s a world that was beautifully evoked in the 1930s Harlem set Royal Exchange and Talawa Theatre Company co-production of Guys & Dolls. In that production pastel suited men and brightly dressed women sang and danced, evoking a world which seemed bright, but with an undercurrent of violence and threat, of poverty and destitution destroying lives. And that’s what ‘The Hustle’ was all about, it was about betting what little you could afford in the hope you might win on the numbers being called out in Wall Street just a few blocks away.

Why was poverty so prevalent in what was already a country (the USA) well on its way to being the dominant economic power of the 20th Century? Well, if you were Black you didn’t exactly have many advantages. Unemployment and discrimination towards the Black population were rife in the USA at that time and, arguably, are seeing a resurgence now. So, squeezed into ghetto like conditions in one district where rents were high relative to people’s income, but cheaper than anywhere else in New York, people resorted ‘The Hustle’ and ‘Rent Parties’. Today across the developed world, and especially in cities like London and New York, we’re seeing the same phenomenon as the cost of housing outstrips people’s ability pay.

Jazz was the soundtrack for ‘Rent Parties’ with musicians like Fats Waller playing in order to help out communities before taking to the stage at one of the big clubs that Harlem was also well-known for. Might something similar happen today, and if it does who will be the musicians who lead such a renaissance of an old community building idea? It’s quite likely to be grime artists and rappers, drawing together people with testimonies that speak to the lived experiences of people affected by the lack of housing.

This fascinating short BBC film explores the history of ‘Rent Parties’ and draws parallels with today – view it here: