New York City is one of the most vibrant cities worldwide. In the hustle and bustle of the megalopolis that never sleeps, one just sees blurred yellow cabs, waves of colored lights breaking in Times Square, and a forest of skyscrapers inhabited by suits worth $3,000. Indeed, it seems hard to see beyond the flamboyant image of a city jealously guarded by the Statue of Liberty. Nevertheless, NYC got secrets, which are buried down beneath the average New Yorker’s hurried footsteps.
In 1993, an intern journalist at the Los Angeles Times published a story about an actual society living underground Big Apple. “Mole people” were said to inhabit former subway stations or murky sewers, in houses made of whatever-was-found-outside. Entire districts started to spread out in the darkness of the tunnels. Depicted by Marc Singer in the documentary Dark Days (2000), he remarks: “Everybody’s here: black, white, Chinese, Latino, old, young, on drugs, straight. It’s like a representation of the city above, except the tunnels weren’t segregated by race.”
A lot of urban legends were circulating about these mole people: that they would eat rats or other human beings, that most of them were drug addicts or trying to shut themselves away from the police. The Dutch journalist Teun Voeten, who spent five months with them in 1994 and 1995, noticed in Tunnel People (1996) that there was a huge variety of profiles down there, from Vietnam veterans to kids on the run. And all seemed to enjoy a peace of mind unknown to the outside New Yorkers, where graffiti acted for philosophy, as evidenced by the arts of the “Freedom Tunnel”.
“[Journalists] only see the mess, but they fail to see the essence: brotherhood, a sense of community, that’s a key thing here. […] Tunnel life was a spiritual rebirth,” reported Bernard, one of the tunnel inhabitants interviewed by Teun Voeten.
Nevertheless, in 1996, the mole people were evicted from their holes – I mean homes – since, apparently, it was decided that their future was to be outside. They were offered vouchers or other kinds of help to find accommodation and make ends meet. A person named Joe, who had lived in the tunnels since 1973, sent a letter to the Amtrak Police – responsible for the eviction – stating “I am not leaving my home. If you kick me out of here, you will […] be causing another homeless person in the streets. I am not homeless, over 22 years in this tunnel!”
Some probably ended up finding jobs, other back to the rainy, noisy streets, not only homeless but also hopeless. Eventually, all had to get used to light, traffic, and to New York City daily chaos.
- Teun Voeten, Tunnel People (2010), PM Press