Voices from the Tunnel

Deep under Manhattan, life goes on


| September-October 1995


Prior to the arrival of the railroad in the mid-1800s, the Hudson River area of New York City was a community of squatters. By the 1930s, when city parks commissioner and master builder Robert Moses covered the New York Central railroad tracks, creating a 2.5-mile-long tunnel under the promenades of Riverside Park, it had evolved into a shantytown. Eventually the tunnel was no longer used for rail traffic, and current residents began moving into the space as early as 1974.

In 1990 approximately 113 tunnel residents were found by Amtrak work crews, who were renewing track in the abandoned tunnel for passenger train service between Pennsylvania Station and Washington, D.C. Sensationally depicted by the media as “mole people,” these residents refused interviews with the press and other representatives of “topside” society. They designated a spokesman, “Glaucon” or “the Lord of the Tunnel,” to speak for them.

An estimated 5,000 people live beneath the streets of Manhattan in this dank underground community. For four years author Terry Williams studied one pocket of this mysterious population, revealing a terrifying, yet strangely tranquil world. Part anthropological study, part political statement, the journal he produced paints a clear-eyed portrait of urban flight by society’s most dispossessed members.

Journal entry (April 1989) 

Each venture into the tunnel brings about the same feelings: As soon as I hit the stairs and start down into the darkness, I feel that I am entering something dangerous. I suppress this anxiety, fear, and hesitation partly because I am getting to know the people there, and partly because I know that I am writing this. Even when the tunnel residents become my friends, the fear is still present every time I go down. I realize now that the fear is not of the tunnel per se, but of something inside me. Entering the tunnel evokes a primal state in my being. My antennae are suddenly alive. I am acutely aware of all that is around me: the rats underfoot, the rocks falling, the strangers who might jump out of the darkness at any time. There are points of sheer darkness where I can’t see my hands—momentary derangement of the senses far removed from what I felt five minutes ago as I walked through Riverside Park. That’s when I develop this notion that the tunnel is the unconscious mind of the city.

Early research plan