And then, sometimes, there are the perks of being a blogging book reviewer. As when a publicity agent sent me an e-mail offering a review copy of Judith Matloff’s Home Girl. Subtitled "Building A Dream House on a Lawless Block", this memoir details Matloff’s experience in buying and renovating a grand old house in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. A week or so later a Priority Mail envelope arrived bearing not a pre-publication proof, but the actual finished book. (Belatedly I looked it up and learned via Worldcat and the PCLS card catalog that the book is in stock and on the shelf in the New Non-Fiction stacks at the branch where I work.)
With humor and pathos, Matloff, who worked for about twenty years as a foreign correspondent, reporting for newspapers from various trouble spots all over the world, tells of marrying another reporter and deciding to return home to New York City. Upon learning that her mother has parlayed her savings from those years of work into a half a million dollar nest egg, Matloff decides it’s time to buy a house. Then she discovers just how little housing $500,000 actually buys in NYC. Which is how it is that Matloff and her husband, John, ended up purchasing an extremely run down and dillapidated, though once grand house in Harlem, moving themselves smack dab into a flourishing cocaine trade.
Initially focusing on getting the scary homeless guy to move out and recruiting a man from the neighborhood to help her begin demolition while waiting for her husband and their furniture to arrive from their previous home in Moscow, Matloff meets and shares with her readers the people of her new neighborhood, from the older middle class black residents, some of whom occupy houses which still cling to their earlier luster to the Dominican drug dealers who have to now treated her sidewalk as an office and her front steps as a latrine. Matloff at length manages to make a truce of sorts with Miguel, the local leader of the drug-dealing Dominicans. And eventually John arrives from Russia and the remodeling and rebuilding begins in earnest.
After completing an upper floor apartment, which they rent to a married couple of opera singers, they are at length able to complete their renovations and bring the house back up to its former glory. By that time, the police have arrested and cleared out all of the drug dealers, other white homesteaders have begun flocking to Harlem and some of the store front businesses that had existed primarily to launder drug money are replaced by mainstream retail chains. And I almost got the feeling that Judith and John might just be tempted to sell off their now much more valuable home and start all over again somewhere else. If you have lived through your own renovation war stories or enjoy reading about life in New York City, Home Girl is Highly Recommended.