“To be sure, the walls were grotesquely pitted and the parlor-floor ceilings were caving in. Pocket doors and wainscoting had been torn out. Yet it was an unmistakable steal for a 4,860-square-foot building with a 50-by-25-foot garden. The place was so huge that the flier neglected to list all six fireplaces and four bathrooms. The formal dining room would amply hold the indispensable South African table.” – Judith Matloff, Home Girl
Judith Matloff thinks that she has seen it all. After years of globe-trotting and acting as a war correspondent in dangerous underdeveloped countries around the world, she has decided to settle down with her new husband and dog, and put down roots. After carefully considering various climes and locales they settle upon New York City to make their home, where some of Matloff’s main criteria for finding a place are lots of space, cheap, and with a dining room which will fit a huge South African dining room table that she has has been carting around the world. She finds her dream home in a drug infested neighborhood of West Harlem.
Home Girl is written in an easy, breezy and totally relatable style. Matloff is surprisingly honest about the flaws that got her into the situations that she encountered in the 2-3 years that she spent buying and renovating her brownstone; namely blindness and desperation in finding the place, lack of due diligence about her new neighborhood (and with her background as a reporter!) and then optimism and goodwill when dealing with shady contractors (money concerns limited her options). As someone who has searched for an apartment in New York City, I can tell you that a lack of resources and the drive to find the right living space can you make all of those things and much, much more. I am never crazier than when I am trying to find a place.
Home Girl had a colorful cast cast of characters. There was the squatter/next door neighbor Salami, who gently terrorized Matloff through the renovation of her apartment; Miguel, the drug dealer/supervisor of the “muchachos” who plied their trade on her door step, all while piling it high with the refuse from their leftover lunches and taking bathroom breaks on her stairs. Matloff formed a tentative bond with all of them even as she attended community meetings with the police and her long suffering neighbors, including one man who planted plastic plants in his garden so that the real ones wouldn’t be ruined by the abuse of the guys on the street. It was interesting to see all of them come together as the neighbor hood improved.
I was pleasantly surprised by the sociological aspect of this book. One of the things that Matloff goes into is the reason why there are so many beeper/cellular stores, nail salons, check cashing places, and high end sneaker shops in a poor neighborhood (they are drug laundering fronts); something I have seen and wondered vaguely about, but never really knew the answer. She also talks about the protections that the drug dealers brought to the tenants and forming a tentative relationship with Miguel. Petty crime and robbery can be low in drug dealing hot spots because dealers keep crime low to avoid drawing the attention of the police. When Matloff has a run-in with a crazy woman on the streets and talks to the police, Miguel chastises her for not coming to him first. He later takes care of the situation for her.
Ostensibly this book is about how Matloff was able to turn a desolate and abandoned building into a home, and make friends in a neighborhood where she as a white woman is in the minority, and it did that in addition to it’s other offerings. I did grow a little weary of her naivete, background as a reporter notwithstanding, she left herself wide open on a lot of things; take for example when she publishes an expose on the drug dealing in the neighborhood and doesn’t expect there to be any repercussions or backlash. I doubt if I would be so brave as to publish an unflattering article about where I lived without at least thinking about how I would deal with people not liking what I wrote.
Her lack of understanding that her expose article could be an issue also made me think about the audience for this book, which was tricky for me. On one hand it can be read as an inside look at what happens when a neighborhood gentrifies, something that can be of interest to anyone for myriad reasons, but it is also one woman’s experience and told from her perspective so some of the language can seem distancing as she shares assumptions and biases that not everyone will share with her. I don’t know that there is any way around that, but it was interesting angle to consider as I read this.
I enjoyed reading this book. It’s an interesting mix in that it is a study of a neighborhood in transition, and a heartwarming story of a woman putting down roots and trying to embrace her new home and the culture of where she lives. A fun read, and thought provoking at the same time.
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