Whatsapp Two decades after NYC sought to relocate its infamous tunnel-dwelling denizens, a years-long investigation reveals a few hardy souls still toiling and thriving beneath the city.
The mouth of the tunnel is wide and dark, swallowing the light and all that breathes. Rubble is scattered along the train tracks, bordered by retaining walls covered in numerous layers of graffiti. This is where it all started. Here by the parkway with the blasting trucks and the roaring cars, near the filigree arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct, here with the gravel crunching under my feet as I run down the railroad into this hollow mouth.
This is where they live, deep into the depths of the city, way underground, lying in the dirt. Sure, you know about them.
Of course you know about them. Here in the tunnels. Their eyes have adapted to the constant night that cloaks them from the topside world. And one day they will spill outside and burn us all alive, and they will reign over our flatscreen joys and our organic delights.
The lost ones, the hidden ones. The broken and the ill, the wandering, the gone. Jon has been homeless for more than fifteen years. Like many of the people interviewed for this article, he did not want to give his full name. He has been living here for a while now, in a small space between two support beams that can only be reached with a ladder.
A plywood roof protects his hoarded belongings from seeping water. The place is crammed full. There is an old mattress on the floor, and cookware, blankets and electronics stacked on makeshift shelves.
He is bipolar and suffers from major substance dependence. He used to be a gang member in the Bronx. He used to be a family man until he got disowned.
He was a furniture salesman. The FBI is looking for him. He used to know Donald Trump. His real story has been buried long ago under thick layers of improvised memories that grew more detailed by the years, the man slowly becoming a collage of himself.
It makes them feel alive. Like alligators in the sewers. He tells me to stay safe and to watch out for trains when I go back walking into the tunnel. I hear him talk to himself as I go away from the entrance and from the white sky. The smell down here is the one of brake dust and mold. I can see rats scouring for food and drinking from brown puddles in the tracks ballast.
The city growls over my head — a distant growl muffled by the concrete, almost a snarl, like something cold and foul spreading over the long stretches of stained walls, like a dark and wild beast curling up around me and breathing on my neck. A dark and wild beast silently trailing me. The expansion of extensive sewers and steam pipes systems had brought a newfound fascination with what laid below the streets.
A New York Times article by John Tierney was the earliest to outline the phenomenon, looking at people living in an abandoned train tunnel beneath Riverside Park, along the banks of the Hudson River. Collective imagination took over quickly. An instant hit, it chronicled the organization of those underground societies, describing compounds of several thousands where babies were born and regular lives were lived, with elected officials, hot water and even electricity.
However, the book was promptly criticized for its inconsistencies. Still, while the essay might have been inflated or romanticized, it was nonetheless true that the homeless begging in the streets of New York were merely the tip of the iceberg. This period is gone. That they spoke their own language. Creepy stuff, straight out of a horror movie… Most was made-up. I personally never witnessed unusual stuff. Written in an abandoned crew room of the F subway line, these words were the reason I ventured into the tunnels in the first place, looking for the invisible, guided by local dwellers along the years to seek foundations of humanity in the foundations of the city.
All the stories I had read about the Mole People before descending myself had two things in common. They all showed simple human beings who were in no way comparable to the legends that had been told, and they all included a man named Bernard Isaac. A place to find peace and take a break from the chaos. Isaac was at the very center of the Mole People legend. His BA in journalism and his studies in philosophy had somehow led him to work as a model, then as a TV crew member, then as a tour guide in the Caribbean where he began smuggling cocaine to the States.
The father of two sons with two different women, he never cared much for family life, preferring to spend his smuggling profits on parties thrown at his Upper West Side penthouse. Soon he was broke, friendless and on his own. By the late s, he was sleeping in the Riverside Park tunnel. The tunnel was known by homeless people since its inception in the s, when it was used by trains to bring cattle to the city before the freight operations ended.
Its population, limited at first to about three or four individuals, quickly grew at the time Isaac settled in, evolving into small tribes of vagrants who built thriving shantytowns in the newly abandoned space.
Few risked getting down into the tunnel. But those who did go down called it home, and it became a haven for the destitute to unwind without fear of getting arrested or attacked like people on the streets often were.
One day, three men asked Isaac for a toll as he came by the th Street entrance to the tunnel. Soon interest came from all around the world.
In the encampment, the dwellers had a familiar place to be, watch TV, read or smoke. Rules were simple but strictly enforced. Some, like Isaac, were at home in the darkness, and would not have lived anywhere else. Most who lived here did not consider themselves homeless. As word spread of the tunnel, a growing number of graffiti artists came to paint the seemingly endless walls that flanked the train tracks.
We dared to be ourselves. Another who attempted to go to the surface was Bob Kalinski, a speed addict known as the fastest cook east of the Mississippi, who could fry twenty eggs at a time when on amphetamines. A heart attack forced him to try his luck with the public housing system in He too returned in the following months. The sense of belonging simply was too strong.
The tunnel was a better place for him to be alone in freedom. Jon must have passed out drunk, now, somewhere behind me. Every noise is threatening in the tunnel, and I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder, ready to face something too awful to name. Was that a train I heard? The metallic vibration of a dragged chain? It smells like death here. The pungent stench of rotting meat. The smell of death all over now. Are those eyes glowing nearby?
I lean against the wall and try to breathe calmly, reminding myself this place is only populated by old memories and the occasional homeless person looking for a safe place to be.
The rumbling feels closer. I see rats scurrying by, racing into the obscurity. Then I see the charred remains of an animal in the corner of an alcove — a raccoon maybe, a big rodent with liquefied flesh, burnt fur and missing limbs. I walk away holding my breath. The ground is littered with discarded books and magazines. A broken crack pipe has been left on a cinder block. There is a garden chair, and overturned crates and buckets.
A mangled teddy bear. His clothes are spotless, regularly washed at a nearby laundromat. Maybe talk to some people. An ex-girlfriend and a kid. He rents an apartment from a friend when his kid comes to visit, a clean studio in a gray Washington Heights building.
I hurt a lot of people. I collect cans, it keeps me busy. I do it all week long. The streets are full of opportunities if you know where to look.
I deal with what I have. The worsening quality of the local drugs means accidents are now more frequent than ever, with overdose-related deaths in In the buildings he helps maintain, he occasionally sells the tenants K2 — a form of synthetic marijuana that recently boomed across the city, especially in East Harlem where a homeless encampment was recently dismantled.
This is who I am.