PARTY ON! by Ellen Donker
Updated: Dec 12, 2019
Rent Party closes in on a decade fighting hunger
If you’re Chris Dickson, there are two kinds of people in Maplewood and South Orange: those who know what a Rent Party is and those who don’t. He seems dumbfounded by the latter. After all, he’s been running monthly events for this hyper-local hunger relief organization for ten years now, advertising them with signs that sprout up on lawns a week before each party.
“You always have to be telling your story,” Dickson says. And he’s told Rent Party’s too many times to count. Partnering with David Wagner in 2009, the duo set out to host live music events to raise money to address hunger in Maplewood and South Orange. They charge $10 admission (it started at $5), bring in local bands for entertainment and use the proceeds – donating more than $100,000 in the past five years – to help food pantries at Our Lady of Sorrows and Oheb Shalom in South Orange, and St. Joseph’s in Maplewood. To date, they’ve hosted 124 shows.
But the name? The organization is called Rent Party as a nod to the music parties people began holding in Harlem in the '20s, when a hat was passed to help people pay their rent. In 2009, many people were facing difficult times after the financial crisis and Dickson sought to help where he could. He calls it the hunger fighting lane. And that’s where he’s stayed.
Unfortunately, food insecurity hasn’t changed much over the years, so Dickson continues to run the parties, adding programs that address hunger in different ways. BackPack Pals, an initiative that provides approximately 100 students with a weekend’s worth of nutritious food during the school year has started its ninth year.
The South Orange Elks Rent Party Garden, on the front lawn of the Elks Club, just wrapped up its eighth season growing produce for the food pantries. Dickson says, “I’m happy to report we broke our record. We raised over 2,100 pounds of fresh produce this summer.” It has also become an approved site for students of the Essex County Master Gardeners program to earn volunteer credits, thanks to Karen Rutberg, who has served as Rent Party’s director of garden operations for the past five years.
And this summer Dickson formed a partnership with Seth Boyden Shares, donating produce to the school’s community garden for their free farmers’ market in the summer. Rent Party also supplies snacks to the Montrose Preschool, donates Thanksgiving baskets to students in need, and works with Mary Vayas and the Village Trattoria to provide pizzas for the Saturday school program at Maplewood Middle School.
Clearly Dickson is satisfied with the work that the organization has done to fight hunger for the past ten years, and proud that it’s still 100 percent volunteer-led. To celebrate, people suggested Dickson plan something fancy, such as a fundraising gala. But that’s not his style. Instead he did what he does every second Friday of the month: He held a show.
Rent Party continues to evolve as Dickson strives to keep the events relevant. Come December, Bone Pool Radio will curate a handful of shows. “Part of my goal today,” Dickson says, “is to make Rent Party just a little younger over the next couple of years.” To that end, he’s planning a family-friendly, all-day music event at The Woodland on Saturday, May 23.
Dickson credits the community for Rent Party’s success in fighting hunger. He says, “It’s more than just the shows. It’s the garden, it’s our relationship with the people in the pantries, it’s the relationship with the social workers and that kind of thing. And it can’t happen just anywhere. There’s something in the water here.”