Fearless foreign correspondent buys a fixer-upper in a different kind of war zone: West Harlem.
For two decades, Matloff (Journalism/Columbia Univ.; Fragments of a Forgotten War, 1997) was a restlessly globetrotting, danger-hunting reporter. In April 2000, she decided to put down roots. With her Dutch husband John, also a roving writer, she purchased a once-beautiful building between Broadway and Amsterdam in the West 140s in Manhattan. Matloff says that the neighborhood seemed even less safe than when she visited her first boyfriend there back in the crime-plagued late-’70s. Her street was an open-air drug market. The manic crack addict squatting next door continually threatened her, claiming that the house was actually his. The dozens of nearby “nail salons” and “shoe stores” were actually money-laundering fronts for cash being sent back home; most of the neighborhood came from the same village in the Dominican Republic. Blessed with a knack for making friends (the years on assignment in Latin America helped, too), the author was quickly on good terms with a grumpy caretaker and a refined, Latin-quoting addict; she even struck a deal with the drug crew’s boss to keep his guys off her property. She and John supervised an ill-assorted gang of renovators: The Mexican mocked the Honduran who in turn derided the Dominicans. Matloff, raised in a liberal Jewish family, was almost as surprised by their unembarrassed battling along ethnic lines as she was by the animosity black neighborhood activists displayed toward the local Dominicans. The author 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.