Home Girl

Drug dealers, house renovation, and rebirth in West Harlem.

Home Girl By Judith Matloff Random House 304 pp., $25

After 20 years as a foreign correspondent in Latin America, Africa, and Russia, Judith Matloff had an irresistible urge to nest. She’d had enough of scorpions in her boots, cold-water baths from buckets, and menacing, gun-toting guards at checkpoints.

So she came home to New York City and hastily bought a stately fixer-upper in West Harlem. Cash. Four levels; six fireplaces; four bathrooms; and so much potential. But Matloff had her doubts. “It was OK to buy a dress on impulse every once and a while,” she ruminates in Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block. “But a house?”

It turns out her block was ground zero for one of the worst cocaine dealing zones in the country. Naturally, the realtor did not mention this at the open house, which conveniently took place on a Sunday morning before scores of dealers in puffy North Face jackets took up their posts all along the street. Only later did Matloff, who was once this newspaper’s correspondent in Johannesburg and Moscow, learn that the town house she had bought with her journalist husband used to be a crack den. That it was in constant danger of invasion from a crazed and muscled crack addict next door. That termites had shredded its innards.

The perils of home improvement bring out chuckles in books such as “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” (later turned into a movie starring Cary Grant).

“Home Girl” shares many amusing moments, but what makes this memoir more than a collection of masonry blunders is its deeper message. Matloff not only reconstructs a house, she helps restore a community.

But first she must survive, and for that, her experiences abroad come in handy. Spanish from her correspondent days assists her navigation with the drug dealers, all from the Dominican Republic. She finds protection by befriending their head honcho. “That’s what you did in Angola if a militiaman stuck his rifle into your car window and wouldn’t let you pass. You pulled rank and demanded to speak to his boss.”

Matloff tells a compelling story of reclamation that includes that other ground zero, 9/11. Her writing is as brilliant as a crystal chandelier, her pacing as quick as a skip down her multistoried staircase. Except for a slight lull in the middle, it’s hard to find any chips in this otherwise polished book.

Francine Kiefer writes editorials for the Monitor, and is working on a book about one of Hitler’s political opponents.

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