Building a Dream House
On a Lawless Block

Judith Matloff
(Random House)
You come back from several years in the trenches as the lead reporter in Rwanda, South Africa and Chechnya for a major American newspaper and you and your reporter husband have several hundred thousand dollars in the bank and what do you do? You find a war zone somewhere in the United States that you can live in. How about a ruined Victorian mansion in drug-infested West Harlem, 1999?

Perfect. Your street is loaded with cell-phone-toting dealers from the Dominican Republic who piss on your front steps and leave their trash along with the residue of users who abandon their needles and paraphernalia and garbage there as well. Then there are the middle-class dope retailers in their SUVs parked three deep at the curb.

The cops come through every week or so for a bust that never seems to work out. Your next door neighbor steals televisions and microwaves and the building materials you are using to fix up the shell of the Victorian you bought ... the one the seller himself called "a disgusting wreck." Your neighbor also threatens you (and your family) on a daily basis. Your family thinks you are mad.

§     §     §

Mad? Cagey is probably a better word for it. Because here we have a newspaper headline ("Harvard-educated reporter buys dump in drug-infested Harlem") that has been blown up into a book and sold to Random House. Which is OK if you were George Plimpton going off and doing some crazy stunt (wrestling, boxing, football) but you're not George Plimpton. You're Judith Matloff who honed her writing skills working for The Christian Science Monitor. Which means that your book will have moments of poignance and "how-did-she-pull-it-off?" along with long stretches of fighting with contractors and an even longer back-and-forth with Clarence the cynical Black from across the street and Salami the crackhead next door who isn't much to look at and even worse in the back-and-forth department reminding us that conversation with anyone doing drugs full time doesn't necessarily make for Shakespearian iambs. Nor do the details of taking a falling-apart brownstone and piecing it back together with Home Depot parts wielded by reformed dope heads make for a drama on a par with The Tempest..

§     §     §

Having said that, let me offer a consolation. Ms. Matloff spent years in disaster zones around the world (and in the Sudan!) working for the Christian Science Monitor where she had to come up with cold reportorial facts --- the hows and the whys --- in order to tell the story. The ins-and-outs of the drug business on the streets of New York can be fascinating, facts that she had to master not for some juvenile editor in Boston but in sheer animal self-defense. For instance, an undercover agent explains to her that "the biggest challenge for drug syndicates was not, as one might think, sneaking the drugs into the country."

    Rather, it was moving the huge profits out. The traffickers were making millions of dollars a week, and they set up business fronts to obscure narcotic profits ... To smuggle the money, the drug organizations hired "Smurfs"--- named after the tiny blue Belgian cartoon creatures. Smurfs divided cash money transfers into amounts less than $10,000 to avoid American reporting requirements, and then sent them to Latin America through the small remittance parlors on Broadway.

The GDP [gross domestic product] of the Dominican Republic "was about $19 billion, of which $1 billion came from remittances sent yearly from the United States.

    "Most of that money has to be drug money," Gino said. "Do the math. The average Dominican working-class household in New York makes about twenty-five thousand dollars a year and sends home installments of three hundred dollars a month. That doesn't add up to the fortune wired."

Home Girl is thus not about a "girl" (Ms. Matloff is well past her third decade) and not about a "home" as you and I would describe it (unless a hundred-year-old brownstone which suddenly morphs --- or smurfs --- into a million-dollar investment could be called a "home"). Rather, it is an instruction manual about how to get along with impossible neighbors who might just blow you away if they got too irritated (they live, after all, in a neighborhood infested with crackheads).

Even if you have a house in Stamford or La Jolla or Bellevue and the guy next door runs a leaf-blower at 6 am or the woman down the street takes in mange-ridden strays ... anyone with batbrains will tell you that are better off negotiating rather than calling in the cops. If your next door neighbor smokes crack and the guys on your front doorstep do thousand-dollar drug deals every day, you can either call the police and live with their fury or like Matloff you can seek out the kingpin (his name is Miguel) and work out a truce so you can make it down the street every day without getting snuffed. This is called "Good Neighbor Relations" or --- better --- "Common Sense."

--- Pamela Wylie
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