Above and Below

I hope everybody hasn’t read this already, but there’s a really excellent book about the people who live in the tunnels and subway systems under New York. “The Mole People,” by Jennifer Toth, was written in the early 90’s. Toth spent a considerable amout of time with a number of different people and groups who have chosen to live underground rather than go to a shelter, and she tells their stories with great compassion.

Although many are pushed underground by drug addiction or mental illness, the “mole people” have formed communities for support, and have become real families to one another. Underground living is not as primitive as you might think – although it smells, Toth writes about broken water mains that serve as showers, electrical lines that have been tapped into for lighting and refridgerators, ersatz schools, and internal hierarchies, including more than one community with an elected mayor.

One common misconception about the homeless is that they are all starving. In fact, many of the underground communities have arrangements with area restaurants to pick up their leftovers at the end of the day. More than one of the mole people told Toth that starving is the least of their worries. Cops and MTA patrolmen, interested in evicting the people and keeping the story quiet (so as not to frighten commuters) is a far greater issue. The shelter system is much more dangerous, where the sleeping homeless are liable to be raped and stripped of their possessions.

Besides a fascinating sociological study, “The Mole People” is also full of crazy facts about New York that you’ll want to tell every person you pass in the street – such as that under places like Grand Central and Penn Station, the tunnels run as deep as 18 stories underground.

For a few days after reading this book, I felt different riding the subway. When I saw someone come ambling through the cars asking for change, I wondered if he was “one of them,” and what his story was. And although I sit by the windows and peer between the tunnels to see if I can catch a glimpse, I know the mole people live much deeper down, and protect themselves in their caves like their animal namesakes.

Of course the book is widely available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, etc., but if you feel like patronizing an independent shop, it’s on the “Perennial Bestseller” shelf at Shakespeare and Co. on Broadway at Washington Place in the Village.

1 Comment so far

  1. dan winckler (unregistered) on March 7th, 2005 @ 6:59 pm

    The Mole People is certainly romantic. It’s also certainly…how should I say…full of le bullshit. Most of Toth’s claims about the tunnels under New York City, e.g., the depth of Grand Central, have been thoroughly debunked by numerous under-NY experts, including Joseph Brennan. From his Fantasy in The Mole People:

    …Grand Central Station, which is spread over forty-eight acres, making it the largest train station in the world. It also goes down six levels beneath the subway tracks. There is no complete blueprint of the tunnels and tracks under the station. Many tunnels were begun but abandoned. Some were built but forgotten. Some were sealed off, but underground homeless people have broken through, either directly or by hacking a hole through the wall or by circuitous routes, to inhabit them now.

    What a load of nonsense. Grand Central Terminal is not in any place below subway tracks, and it goes down two levels of tracks and with passages at two levels below that. “No complete blueprint”? Detailed diagrams can be found in several published books, and photographs of the excavations can be found in published books and articles as well. No tunnels in the terminal were begun and abandoned. The terminal was constructed in one project completed in 1913, and not accreted piece by piece over many years as this may imply.

    Despite the fact that there are almost no unused and forgotten tunnels under New York, I still find the transit system fascinating for its true history, and for all the lives that have passed through it. The truth is much more detailed and rich than the Batcave. :)



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