I was only going to skim Judith Matloff's Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block, but after I read the first few chapters, I couldn't stop. Matloff, a former foreign correspondent and bureau chief for The Christian Science Monitor, tells the story of her later-in-life marriage to another journalist, and their subsequent desire to settle down perhaps someplace less unsettled than where they had been living (Rwanda, Moscow, etc.). So where did they choose?
Why, West Harlem, New York City, on a street with a lively drug trade and a crack addict neighbor named Salami squatting in the abandoned house next door, of course.
Matloff and her husband don't settle there because they love the neighborhood; they buy a brownhouse there because it's one of the few living situations they can actually afford in New York City, even with years of savings upon which to draw. From the start the author has to deal with a house falling down around her, construction contractors of varying degrees of skill and trustability, and individuals doing drug deals on her front steps. In addition to the multitudes of trash she finds on her front stoop, she also finds broken crack vials and two syringes filled with old blood in her backyard.
But what's truly fascinating is how she and her family eventually become quite comfortable as a part of their neighborhood. They make an effort both to join community efforts to lessen crime, as well as to get to know the (primarily) Dominican Republican drug dealers on their block. My absolute favorite part was when she returned from the doctor's office, newly in possession of the information regarding the sex of her baby, and has no one to tell but her local drug boss Miguel:
"Eventually, the chicken wing in the sonograms took on a more human appearance, including, on one visit, an unmistakable set of male genitalia. As I rode home from the doctor, I called Mom, John, and my sister, but no one was there. Wanting to share the news with a human rather than an answering machine, I announced our unborn's gender to Miguel as he held the taxi door open for me. 'Un hijo!' ('A son!') Miguel called excitedly to the street.
Oops, a narcotics dealer was the first to know. This was truly a strange start." (p. 198.)
I enjoyed that immensely.