Book Talk: Reporter Judith Matloff discovers the war at home

Wed Oct 15, 2008 7:21am EDT
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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Former foreign correspondent Judith Matloff took a break after 20 years of reporting from places like Chechnya and Rwanda for Reuters and other news organizations to return to her native United States in 2000 and seek out a domestic life in New York with her husband. But ever the adventurer, Matloff chose to live in a part of the Big Apple that was still a bit on wild side. She quickly discovered the bargain house in Harlem that she'd spent all of her money on stood in the heart of the Dominican drugs trade. Her book "Home Girl" recounts the road from ruin to rejuvenation for her house and her neighborhood. Reviews of Matloff's book can be found on and video on

Q: Why did you move to this part of New York?

A: I didn't have that much money. I was looking around and I found this cheap property, that seemed so unbelievably cheap I couldn't understand how it could be this cheap and it was an enormous house, a gigantic house in Harlem. And I thought Oh danger schmanger I've lived with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), I've been under mortar fire, living in Harlem wasn't going to be that big of a deal.

Q: So you bought the house and then discovered why you got such a good deal?

A: We closed very quickly on the house again wondering why were the owners in such a rush to sell it and then I found out. It was a former crack house it was on a street that the cops called ground zero for the narcotics trade, and my street was run by a gang of 60 Dominican drug dealers and there was a crack house next door and the crack addicts who lived next door had lived in my house and been kicked out so I could buy my house. These were vacant houses. Ours wasn't burned out but it was vacant and it had been fairly messed up by the crack addicts who had lived here for a while. There were five crack houses on the street, around the corner there were six.

Q: How did you go about settling in with the drug gang?

A: I negotiated with the head of the gang and I said: "Look I know you're a good business man." Ultimately this whole thing was just all about business. They were running a business, a trading floor, and they didn't want me to mess up their activity, so I came to an agreement with him I said: "You keep the guys off our stoop (New York slang for front step) and we won't bother your business." And then they were pretty nice to us.

Q: Nice? How do you mean they were nice?

A: My mother, who was a little old lady, would drive in to visit us and they would make sure she had parking spaces and maneuver the car into a tight spot and they would carry her grocery bags up the stairs and when I was pregnant they'd open the gate for me. When you think about it they were just business men, (even though) you might not like their business.   Continued...