New York’s tunnel people

Franky (right) drinks a bottle of beer in his shack which used to be an Amtrak storage area, with Latima and Ment. Franky holds Fatima's baby. They are homeless and live by the train tracks in the Amtrak railroad tunnel underneath Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City. photo by Teun Voeten

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.

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