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Home Girl

Drug dealers, house renovation, and rebirth in West Harlem.

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After 20 years as a foreign correspondent in Latin America, Africa, and Russia, Judith Matloff had an irresistible urge to nest. She’d had enough of scorpions in her boots, cold-water baths from buckets, and menacing, gun-toting guards at checkpoints.

So she came home to New York City and hastily bought a stately fixer-upper in West Harlem. Cash. Four levels; six fireplaces; four bathrooms; and so much potential. But Matloff had her doubts. “It was OK to buy a dress on impulse every once and a while,” she ruminates in Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block. “But a house?”

It turns out her block was ground zero for one of the worst cocaine dealing zones in the country. Naturally, the realtor did not mention this at the open house, which conveniently took place on a Sunday morning before scores of dealers in puffy North Face jackets took up their posts all along the street. Only later did Matloff, who was once this newspaper’s correspondent in Johannesburg and Moscow, learn that the town house she had bought with her journalist husband used to be a crack den. That it was in constant danger of invasion from a crazed and muscled crack addict next door. That termites had shredded its innards.

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