I first heard about New York’s tunnel people in 1992 when I met Terry Williams, an ethnographer specialising in urban issues. Williams described them as ‘a new class of people who have been rejected by society and became in fact invisible.’
Immediately, I was intrigued and began to read as much as I could on the subject. A lot of the reporting was sensationalist. It was said that in the complicated labyrinth of hundreds of kilometres of subways and railroad tunnels, thousands of homeless people had found a home. The subterranean world was painted as Dante’s Inferno, the tunnel people labelled with sensational names such as ‘Mole People’ and CHUDS: ‘Cannibalistic Human Underground Dwellers’. There were urban legends about subway maintenance workers who had disappeared without a trace, having met their final destiny on the roasting spits of starving savages In trying to document the tunnel people in a more nuanced way, I decided to use my professional training in anthropology and its favourite research method of participant observation. As the name implies, the researcher moves between a role of distant observer at certain times, to an involved actor at other times.