Home Girl: Building A Dream House On A Lawless Block by Judith MatloffHome Girl: Building A Dream House On A Lawless Block by Judith Matloff

Home Girl: Building A Dream House On A Lawless Block

byJudith Matloff

Paperback | July 14, 2009

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After twenty years as a foreign correspondent in tumultuous locales, Judith Matloff is ready to return to her native New York City and start a family with her husband, John. Intoxicated by West Harlem’s cultural diversity and, more important, its affordability, Judith impulsively buys a stately fixer-upper brownstone in the neighborhood–only to discover that this dream house was once a crack den and that calling it a “fixer upper” is an understatement. Thus begins the couple’s odyssey to win over brazen drug dealers, delinquent construction workers, and eccentric neighbors in one of the biggest drug zones in the country. It’s a far cry from utopia, but it’s a start, and Judith and John do all they can to carve out a comfortable life–and, over time, come to appreciate the neighborhood’s rough charms. A wry, reflective, and hugely entertaining memoir, Home Girl is for anyone who has longed to go home, however complicated the journey.
Judith Matloff is a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She was a foreign correspondent for twenty years, lastly as the bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor in Africa and Moscow. Her stories have appeared in numerous publications, including T...
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Title:Home Girl: Building A Dream House On A Lawless BlockFormat:PaperbackDimensions:304 pages, 8.2 × 5.15 × 0.65 inPublished:July 14, 2009Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0812978986

ISBN - 13:9780812978988

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Read from the Book

Chapter 1   Somewhere Uncivilized   The first time I spoke to the man who would become my husband, we talked about another house. It was in 1995, exactly five years earlier, in Johannesburg, and we found ourselves sitting together at a Russian restaurant. We dozen or so members of South Africa’s foreign press corps had been convened by Joe, a mutual friend from Newsweek, to mark the unusual fact that we were all in town at the same time, in between reporting trips. The mood at the table was variously morose or nonsensical, depending on the state of inebriation.   I was on the lower rungs of glum, having just returned from a trip to Rwanda. I had been covering the first anniversary of the genocide and I was pretty shaken, having witnessed the exhumation of fifteen thousand bodies. It was the most horrendous thing I’d ever seen during fifteen years as a journalist. I had returned to Jo’burg looking forward to some TLC from my photographer boyfriend, only to discover that he had been cheating on me during this absence as well as others. The dinner invitation came just as I broke up with him, and as I drove over to the restaurant I vowed to avoid romance for a long, long while.   Now at the table, though, I couldn’t help noticing the handsome Dutchman on my right. The words “newly single” drifted into my ears as he chatted with others. I learned that this manly specimen’s name was John, he was my age, and he was a business writer. Joe suggested that we speak; John had recently exposed a diamond-smuggling ring in Angola, a country about which I was writing a book. However, I was more interested in John’s tall, athletic body. The debonair way this man with the rugged looks rolled his cigarette was particularly fetching, and I resolved to get his number at the end of the meal.   There was something I wanted from him immediately, though. I was in the process of buying my first piece of real estate ever and needed mortgage advice. Surely John, as a finance maven, had expertise to share.   I introduced myself and prattled on about the airy charms of the house, which had a little pond in front that I could gaze upon while writing. An empty lot in the back provided ample space for my big dog to roam. Two cottages on the property could be rented out to cover the mortgage. All this for $65,000!   John listened intently. His sea-green eyes grew serious. “Interest rates are twenty percent. The rand is collapsing.” I shrugged.   He persisted. “Judith, only an idiot would buy now.”   Never one to mull over inconvenient wisdom, I bought the house the next week. I continually faced danger in my work and was accustomed to weighing consequences when taking risks. This one seemed worth it. Besides, I desired the property with, well, lust.   Lots of people buy real estate at age thirty-seven, but this purchase marked a momentous shift for me. The prosaic phrase “time to settle down” didn’t quite convey the violent compulsion I felt to acquire a property deed. While my (mainly) male contemporaries were ditching their first wives or buying vintage Jaguars, my version of a midlife crisis was to obtain a fixed address. For fifteen years I had roamed overseas with an almost adolescent lack of commitment, faithful only to the misguided idealism that my reportage could change the world. From the moment I left college to write about Latin American rebellions I had forfeited most people’s notions of safety and comfort. Possessions, lovers, soul mates, relatives—all were sacrificed when I received marching orders for the next assignment, be it in Africa or in Europe. Marriage was a luxury for others. Of course I would have liked a partner to come along, but none was willing to follow me anywhere.   The pull to the front lines of history led me to witness the fall of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in what was then Zaire, and become an expert at talking my way onto African gun-smuggling planes. I remembered the first time I was shot at, in Guatemala, the way others recalled first kisses.   It was heady stuff. What a privilege! I had visited more than fifty countries, and was soon to be a published author! A rich montage of images flashed when I thought about my years abroad. Nelson Mandela had smiled in recognition when he saw me. UNITA rebels had threatened me with death in Angola. Scorpions had hidden in my boots in Sudan. I had seen the Berlin Wall before it fell and met various presidents. A gorilla had touched my shoulder in the rain forest!   Sometimes, while on long jeep rides past camels in the desert, I had wondered at the fact that people paid me to do this. However, it was beginning to dawn on me that the reality of this life wasn’t quite the National Geographic spread in my head. I rarely lived in any country for more than three years, and just when I forged a vague idea of what I was writing about and cultivated a nice circle of friends, my editors would send me packing for the next assignment. Over two decades I had moved from Mexico to London to Madrid, back to London, to Lisbon, and then to Johannesburg. These were just bases. Sometimes I visited four countries in one week. More than once I awoke in a dreary hotel and couldn’t remember which city I was in.   This geographic fragmentation was particularly bad in Africa, when I was the bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor. My beat covered forty-seven countries, and I spent so much time in airport lounges waiting for delayed planes that I actually managed to write most of my Angola book in between flights. When I met John, I was beginning to get the first twinges of “Surely this cannot be a suitable way for a soon-to-be-middle-aged woman to conduct her life.” It was no longer exciting to take cold baths out of buckets, or drive on the shoulders of roads to avoid land mines.   My first step toward nesting was to acquire an abandoned Alaskan sled dog, Khaya, on whom I lavished far too many expensive rump steaks and rambling monologues. Then I found myself spending increasing vacation time with my mother and sister in New York City, where I had grown up, instead of doing something intrepid like diving in Mozambique. I was growing tired of missing the weddings and births of my dearest ten thousand miles away. The agonizing nadir was when I had to leave my father in his hospital bed and fly back to my job in London because my “compassionate” leave was up. The next time I saw him was in an open casket. I tortured myself for missing his final months, and now I was losing out on other major events at home. My sister had given birth and my mother was recovering from serious back surgery. I wanted to be near them for more than two weeks at a time.   Since my work didn’t allow for this, I cultivated a substitute: real estate flyers. If I couldn’t be at home, I would try to settle where I was instead. All of a sudden, this woman who didn’t even own a chair was visiting people’s bathrooms just to inspect the wall tiles. When I found myself devoting Sundays in Johannesburg to dropping in on open houses, it was clear: I needed to buy a house.

Editorial Reviews

“Matloff tells a compelling story of reclamation...Her writing is as brilliant as a crystal chandelier, her pacing as quick as a skip down her multistoried staircase. “—Christian Science Monitor"Matloff is a writing pro, sprightly and thorough in her characterizations."—Publishers Weekly"a hugely entertaining memoir about family, community and real estate"—Tucson Citizen"delightful and humorous...Matloff is a superb storyteller" —Rocky Mountain News"Matloff blends humor with considerable storytelling skills" —Library Journal“[Matloff] avoids nonfiction chick-lit cliché, even when describing such milestones as 9/11 or her pregnancy; her journalistic curiosity and lightly self-deprecating touch keep the book from becoming an uptown safari for the Elle Decor set. She rarely focuses on herself or even the house, but rather on her thrilling, problem-plagued neighborhood, colorfully portrayed in terms that are neither frightened nor naïve. A loving, stirring portrait of the American cultural mosaic.”—Kirkus Reviews"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 also could 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 fails. 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 raddled land. Matloff's story, which had me crying and laughing, is a portrait of a household and a community, both extending far beyond the specifics of west Harlem to the universal--like all well told stories do.”—Martha McPhee, author of L’America"a poignant memoir"—TimeOut NY"a hugely entertaining memoir"—Tucson Citizen“Home Girl : Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block is less about the house and more about the block and is as likely to appeal to social activists as to serial renovators.”—Belle Elving, Washington Post