PRINT October 1991


THE UNDERGROUND RESIDENTS of New York exist in a world of perpetual darkness, punctuated only by occasional shafts of light. In contrast to other homeless people, who are a ubiquitous presence on the streets of the city, this community is invisible to people traversing the streets and promenades directly above them, or to passengers on trains speeding through the black expanse of railroad tunnels, unaware that they are passing by the front doors of a population that occupies previously uncharted, unlived-in territory, a frontier of land and time. The tunnel residents increasingly occupy the night, and share little of the diurnal environment with others aboveground. They live in a harsh ecology that is deprived of light, water, and heat, and constantly struggle to protect themselves against the extreme cold and dampness of the cavernous space.

Many of the tunnel residents dwell alongside the tracks in cinder-block structures originally used by railroad personnel. Others live up high within the tunnel walls, inside niches accessible only by 20-foot ladders. Some have built freestanding structures in the dark recesses of the tunnel, or created nests atop concrete ledges. Sleeping rooms within the cinder-block structures are veiled in darkness, lit only by one or two candles. They are permeated by the smell of cats, valued highly as predators against the rats that overrun the tunnel. A communal kitchen serves many of the residents, and meals are prepared daily over a fire positioned under an air vent. Water, food, and firewood are obtained through nocturnal visits “topside,” the term used to designate the upper world.

The entrances to the tunnel are continually welded shut or padlocked by park officials to discourage the tunnel residents, who nevertheless always manage to regain access to their underground homes. Despite the inherent difficulties and dangers of living in this monumental subterranean space, the residents perceive it as a more acceptable housing alternative than the shelters and streets of New York City.

Terry Williams