Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block
by Judith Matloff

Random House, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4000-6526-4.
Reviewed by Trilla Pando
Posted on 10/16/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir

Talk about risk-takers? You are talking about Judith Matloff. She spent twenty years pursuing a journalism career that took her to hot spots around the world—Rwanda, Chechnya, South Africa. Along the way she met and married an equally adventuresome fellow journalist who hails from Holland.

Matloff and her husband were living in Russia, reveling in their danger-loaded life, when she had what she calls a midlife crisis. She did not go out and get a divorce or buy a fancy sports car; instead, she decided to settle down, buy a house, and maybe start a family. But where? They could choose from the whole world. Montreal? Jerusalem? They settled on Matloff's hometown: New York City. She left her husband and the dog behind to pack and finish up their life in Moscow. She flew off to find the new home. Here comes her risky behavior again!

The family wanted to live in Manhattan, but did not have a Manhattan budget, unless...unless they went to Harlem. Swept up by enthusiasm and challenged by another bidder, Matloff suddenly found herself the owner of a genuine wreck in West Harlem. She did it all on her own. Without consultation with her husband, she sank their life savings into the project. And then she began to worry.

This was not fix up; it was a start-all-over. Home Girl chronicles the family's adventures, not only with making a house first livable and then a home, but also with learning to live in and become part of a neighborhood that was not exactly welcoming. Drug dealers did business on the front stoop and homeless folks threw filth over the back fence. (I mean filth!) Blood-filled syringes were buried in the garden. Quite a challenge. But they pulled it off and soon the neighborhood welcomed the couple's new son to the community where they thrive today. The author does comment that since things have calmed down, the family is finding life a bit tame. Maybe a new adventure is in the offing?

Matloff's professionalism shines through in her writing. She brilliantly captures the setting and the individuals. I felt I could move in right next door and know everyone on the block.

Judith Matloff lives with her husband and son in their West Harlem home. She is a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Her website has before and after pictures of the house and a video of the finished product.

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