October 15, 2008 / 11:25 AM / 10 years ago

Book Talk: Reporter Judith Matloff discovers the war at home

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 www.judithmatloff.com and video on www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvK3ztvlrNY

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.

Q: Business men? How exactly?

A: It was almost like Wall Street. At 11 o’clock sharp they’d all show up on the street and they would all take up formation and everybody had a particular job in the hierarchy like there might be a spotter who would watch to see if the police were coming and then you had the guy who would make the arrangements with the customers and he would alert somebody else on a radio and then that person would alert somebody else in a café to wait with the shipment and then they had another place where they would store the goods and then they would have another guy who would deliver it. So they had a very intricate corporate structure and it was fascinating.

Q: Didn’t it feel unsafe in the middle of the drug trade?

A: The amount of cocaine that was moving on our street was millions and millions of dollars. People would say: “Surely it’s not safe living there.” Paradoxically, because our street was run by a very wealthy crime syndicate, drug salesmen who are dealing with wholesale cocaine...moving let’s say a million dollars a week, don’t like pickpockets. So these guys who ran our street made sure there was absolutely no petty crime.

Q: When did the neighborhood start to get cleaned up?

A: The summer of 2002 the crackdown started, which was called prosaically “operation crackdown.” They flooded the area with so many cops that the cops were arresting each other. It was such a traffic jam of law enforcement vehicles that at one point two police cars crashed into each other. There were just hundreds of these guys flooding the zone on bicycle, on horse, on foot in car in every costume you can imagine. They made a lot of headway then and then the DA’s (District Attorney) office started to really crack down. We finally started to see results, tangible results of more legitimate businesses moving in and whatnot probably in 2006.

Q: What convinced you to write a book about it?

A: The way it came out to be a book was actually a former Reuters person was visiting me to promote her latest book and we had a dinner party for her and we were regaling the dinner guests including her publisher about what it was like to live on the street. Surveillance helicopters would hover over the street, every night there was a raid, the cops would seal off the street and they’d go and raid the drug houses down the street and haul these young men off in vans. Conveniently there was a raid that night, so we took them out to show them the raid on the street, this chaos of all these people running around yelling “buy! sell!” on their cell phones. And this publisher said: “Surely you’re writing a book.”

Q: How is the ‘hood now?

A: It’s a beautiful vibrant Latino neighborhood where everybody lives on the street, everything happens on the street. It’s probably the only neighborhood in New York, one of the last ones, where you don’t have to worry about locking your door and where kids can play on the street. It’s one of those rare old-fashioned neighborhoods that you don’t get any more in New York, or very rarely. All our neighbors know each other. Everybody calls from the windows or the front steps.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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