Home ownership can be an adventure, but not always as big an adventure as it was for Judith and John. Buying a "fixer-upper" is one thing. Buying a fixer-upper on a street where you're surrounded by abandoned and run-down buildings, and where your neighbors are drug dealers and their clients, is something else again. But after living and working abroad as a journalist for twenty years, during which time she bought her first house (in South Africa), married, and had two miscarriages, Judith was ready to return to her native land - New York City. Thanks to differentials in foreign income and costs of living and her mother's wise money management, she was pleased to find out she had a healthy nest egg to use in buying a house - but it's New York City, where a quarter of a million dollars doesn't go very far. At the suggestions of her sister and brother-in-law, who had bought a home in a dicey part of Brooklyn, and a friend who owned a former crack house, Judith explored some of the outer reaches of the city - areas full of old buildings with potential - and wound up with a West Harlem brownstone that had "good bones" but needed a lot of work.
Judith and John were "pioneers" in an "emerging" neighborhood, which basically means they bought in prior to gentrification, when there was no telling whether the area would improve or deteriorate. Some of their neighbors were long-established Harlemites who continued to defend their territory, but the block was a stronghold of the Dominican-immigrant drug trade, and Judith eventually comes to a shaky truce with the leader of the crew. It's not just the dealers, though - there are also addicts for whom the block is "home," including the crackhead squatting in the abandoned house next door but who makes daily claims and threats on Judith's new home.
Judith, John, and the house all survive the stress of a full renovation and the selection of tenants (just because they could manage to buy a New York brownstone didn't mean they could afford to live in it on their own, so the renovation created three apartments) just in time for the arrival of their first child. While Judith has been torn between appreciation for the diversity of the neighborhood and concerns about personal safety, becoming a parent pushes her toward more community activism. Eventually, those efforts help to banish the drug dealers and usher in the block's official "gentrification" phase. Still living in West Harlem today among neighbors of all ages, professions, and ethnicities, Judith has realized that home - and family - are where you make them.
As a born New Yorker (though not raised there), I frequently feel a pull toward New York stories, and this one fascinated me. Since I currently live in another insane real-estate market, I understand why people buy downtrodden properties in the hopes of improving both the house and the community, but I don't think I'd ever be that adventurous myself. (Much as I hate admitting it, I've become a suburbanite at heart in quite a few respects.) This was another journalist's memoir that balanced the personal story with its context very well, and I liked Matloff's writing - she really pulled me in, and I was interested in getting to know her and the characters who surrounded her. I found Home Girl to be a compelling story of taking chances that, for the most part, actually worked out, and I'm just sorry it took me so long to pull it out of the TBR-for-review stack.