Several weeks back I got an email from the author’s publicist regarding this book about a woman who buys a fixer upper brownstone in Harlem on a street filled with Dominican drug dealers. In a quick summary I think the book will speak to several who have gone through or are going through the same experience, in other neighborhoods and cities.
We’re perfectly aware that demographic changes, that in shorthand we call gentrification can be hard on struggling old timers. After reading this, the author, Judith Matloff, illustrates that it’s no picnic for the new group moving in either. Fixing up and living in a house, having to deal with contractors of varying skill, competency, and temperament, is not fun. Nor is having to navigate through an active open air drug market to get home. Or living next door to a crackhead squatting in the building next to yours, who harasses you and your spouse, and has occasionally broken in to your house and caused damage.
I’m reviewing the book in parts. This part I’ll deal with the first 7 chapters of this 25 chaptered book. I can say quickly that it starts off slow. I recognized the necessity of explaining Ms. Matloff’s background as a devil may care foreign correspondent in dangerous war torn/corrupt countries. However, I found the first couple of chapters dragging and I wanted to get past the biographical material as soon as possible.
It begins to get interesting when she begins working on the house in chapter 5. In the next chapter she recalls a statement that I feel is unfortunately true:
…Three policemen on horses clopped past and told the dealers at Salami’s house to move on. The muchachos ignored the cops, and the horses rode on.
“There goes the cavalry,” the woman remarked dryly. “They can’t do anything. It’s legal to loiter. You bought this house?”
“We’re under contract.”
“I’m glad someone finally bought it.” Her eyes swept over my dust flecked jeans and untamed curls. As she pursed her glossed lips, I got the impression that I wasn’t her first choice of a neighbor. “That house has been empty since the doctor died six months ago, It’s a blight on the block. I hope you have the energy. If you don’t mind my saying so, and please don’t take this the wrong way, the police will listen to you whites. They don’t take us black folks very seriously when we complain about the problem.”
The woman is her neighbor Leticia, and old timer who invites her to a police meeting and into her home to talk. The author notes the pristine condition of Leticia’s home and writes:
This was yet another reason that our house was so cheap. It had been destroyed. Ruined. Wrecked. Lecticia’s immaculate abode was the ‘before’ version of my house.
In sharp contrast, my dilapidated property was a museum of the crack epidemic. It served as a reminder of all that had destroyed Harlem: crime, looting, despair, poverty, failing schools. My house screamed, “Neglect.”