After twenty years as a foreign correspondent in tumultuous locales including Rwanda, Chechnya, and Sudan, Judith Matloff is ready to put down roots and start a family. She leaves Moscow and returns to her native New York City to house-hunt for the perfect spot while her Dutch husband, John, stays behind in Russia with their dog to pack up their belongings. Intoxicated by West Harlem’s cultural diversity and, more important, its affordability, Judith impulsively buys a stately fixer-upper brownstone in the neighborhood.
Little does she know what’s in store. Judith and John discover that their dream house was once a crack den and that “fixer upper” is an understatement. The building is a total wreck: The beams have been chewed to dust by termites, the staircase is separating from the wall, and the windows are smashed thanks to a recent break-in. Plus, the house–crowded with throngs of brazen drug dealers–forms the bustling epicenter of the cocaine trade in the Northeast, and heavily armed police regularly appear outside their door in pursuit of the thugs and crackheads who loiter there.
Thus begins Judith and John’s odyssey to win over the neighbors, including Salami, the menacing addict who threatens to take over their house; MacKenzie, the literary homeless man who quotes Latin over morning coffee; Mrs. LaDuke, the salty octogenarian and neighborhood watchdog; and Miguel, the smooth lieutenant of the local drug crew, with whom the couple must negotiate safe passage. It’s a far cry from utopia, but it’s a start, and they do all they can to carve out a comfortable life. And by the time they experience the birth of a son, Judith and John have even come to appreciate the neighborhood’s rough charms.
Blending her finely honed reporter’s instincts with superb storytelling, Judith Matloff has crafted a wry, reflective, and hugely entertaining memoir about community, home, and real estate. Home Girl is for anyone who has ever longed to go home, however complicated the journey.
Advance Praise for Home Girl
“Although I always suspected that renovating a house in New York City would be a slightly more harrowing undertaking than dodging bullets as a foreign correspondent, it took this charming story to convince me it could also be more entertaining. Except for the plumbing. That’s one adventure I couldn't survive.”
–Michelle Slatalla, author of The Town on Beaver Creek
“After years of covering wars overseas, Judith Matloff takes her boundless courage and inimitable style to the front lines of America’s biggest city. From her vantage point in a former crack house in West Harlem, she brings life to a proud community held hostage by drug dealers and forgotten by policy makers. Matloff’s sense of humor, clear reportage, and zest for adventure never fail. Home Girl is part gritty confessional, part love story, and totally delightful.”
–Bob Drogin, author of Curveball
“Here the American dream of home ownership takes on the epic dimensions of the modern pioneer in a drug-riddled land. Matloff’s story, which had me crying and laughing, is a portrait of a household and a community, extending far beyond the specifics of West Harlem to the universal–as all well-told stories do.”
–Martha McPhee, author of L’America
Although a roving international reporter used to being in the trenches, Matloff (Fragments of a Forgotten War) was so eager to make a nest with her new Dutch husband that she neglected to research the West Harlem, New York, street where she snagged a commodious four-story townhouse at a bargain price in 2000. "Needs TLC" indeed proved a euphemism for the decrepit state of the building, and the street hopping with Dominican drug dealers and their out-of-state, SUV-parking customers stood at the "epicenter" of narcotics trafficking on the eastern seaboard. Matloff relates with graceful humor how she had to negotiate gingerly among such resentful locals as Salami, a drug-addled squatter next door who enjoyed taunting her; the street's kingpin dealer Miguel, from whom she sought protection; and the entrenched, terrified black residents who coexisted mistrustfully with their poorer Dominican neighbors amid a kind of "social apartheid." Meanwhile, she jump-started renovations on the house with a motley ethnic crew of bickering workers until she was finally joined by her husband, John, and their dog once John secured a visa. The couple's presence bolstered the street's activism, and along with shakeups in city politics, the state of siege began to lift and the street makeup changed. While her narrative occasionally becomes long-winded in her thoughts on gentrification, Matloff is a writing pro, sprightly and thorough in her characterizations.