The Tunnel Dwellers of New York


The Tunnel Dwellers of New York is a documentary of just under an hour about the homeless people who live underneath the city of New York, in the huge number of abandoned subway tunnels and various other structures that make up the vast, dark, labyrinthine world down there that most people have no clue exists.

People first started living under the city in significant numbers in the ’70s. Those early underground dwellers were mostly Vietnam War veterans, too fucked up to any longer be functional enough for a “normal” life. Gradually the number of homeless who sought refuge in the tunnels increased significantly, though more recently it has dropped again as the powers that be decided that having people freely moving about underneath the city could facilitate terror attacks (imagine accumulating massive amounts of explosives directly under key structures in New York and then detonating them), and have periodically raided the tunnels and flushed people out.

Several of the tunnel inhabitants are interviewed at length, and shown in their underground abode. We also meet a local nun who works with this segment of the homeless population, and is clearly beloved by the tunnel dwellers who know her.

The people who live down there are as mentally shaky on average as I suppose you’d expect homeless people to be, but at least the ones who agreed to be interviewed seem to be decent people just trying to survive. There’s even a kind of social code or camaraderie amongst them, as they keep tabs on each other and watch each other’s back, as you can imagine how unsafe and vulnerable people down there would otherwise be as detached individuals, given how invisible that environment is to the public and law enforcement and such.

Some of the tunnel dwellers come above ground daily, and some come up far less often, whenever they need to scrounge some provisions. Much of that comes from picking through garbage; restaurants and groceries discard a great deal of still edible food, college students and others discard plenty of clothes that are still in decent shape.

They provision little corners and cubbyholes in the tunnels as best they can, repurposing various items into beds, chairs, walls, etc. These are their makeshift apartments, where they live for months, years, or in some cases a decade or more.

Once you get very far from the street it’s pitch dark down there, so they make use of flashlights and candles and such, or just get used to being in the dark most of the time.

Not surprisingly, it looks filthy down there. Or maybe it is a little bit surprising, since I would think that if you’re going to live somewhere for years, you’d maybe make some effort to tidy up just your personal space. But the tunnels, and seemingly just as much the little dwellings that people have created for themselves down there, are strewn with all kinds of garbage, broken glass, busted up construction materials, etc.

Though the threats from other humans are mitigated somewhat (albeit far from eliminated, I’m sure) by the way people all watch out for each other in the tunnels, I would think the remaining living things would be a huge negative to living under the city. That factor doesn’t get a lot of attention in the film—raccoons are mentioned and shown, and we briefly see a couple of cats (not even particularly feral acting, though I assume they are)—but surely rats and roaches and other vermin are ubiquitous down there. That factor alone would freak the hell out of me.

Mostly the interviewees are in good spirits, and act as if they’re really not so bad off underground. One talks about how the isolation can actually be a positive, that compared to being aboveground in the hustle and bustle of the city, there’s something about the solitude in his little cubbyhole in the tunnel darkness that is pleasingly peaceful and meditative.

Like I’m sure is the case for virtually all viewers of The Tunnel Dwellers of New York, a big part of my reaction watching it was just what a horrible existence this is.

Maybe 85% of me reacted that way. But there was another 15% that felt a certain pull toward that underground life. Maybe not in the sense that it looked appealing, but more that that 15% of me was rooting for it to be more appealing, was in some sense holding out hope that there would be some way to make living in the tunnels not be hellish.

I think you can trace that reaction all the way back to my childhood. I was mostly a shy kid with a highly unpleasant home life, which I detached from emotionally from a very young age and physically (I ran away) as soon as I realistically could.

One way that my dissatisfaction with my life and my desire to escape it manifested itself was through an occasional fantasy I had way back when I was elementary school age. I would periodically speculate about if there might be some realistic way to build tunnels and little rooms underneath our back yard. Like, how many hundreds of hours of labor would it take to create something like that with just me and a shovel, or at most me and maybe a couple of school friends? How deep would such tunnels have to be dug to not just have the ground collapse into them? Would you have to line them with some kind of wooden boards or something?

For whatever reason, when I was 6, 7, 8 years old, I didn’t think in terms of going off and living in the woods somewhere, or stowing away on some ship and living at sea, or anything like that. I just wanted to have my own little safe space underground, where I could be totally alone and not have to deal with anyone or anything. Kind of like the fellow who praises the solitude of being a tunnel dweller underneath New York.

So this film took me back to that period of my childhood. It reminded me that that part of me has never fully disappeared. So when I see how these folks live, I’m fully aware of all the drawbacks—not only intellectually, but I react to them emotionally as well—yet there’s still a little voice in me saying, “Yeah, but there could also be something kind of cool about that life.”

But another reaction I have to seeing things like this is to appreciate what I (we) have. I know that’s kind of a cliché, but it’s still valuable to think in those terms.

I remember when I spent a few years volunteering weekly at a maximum security prison, meeting with the prisoners and conversing about their lives, I would regularly remind myself that whatever there is to dislike about my life, there is plenty to be thankful for as well, including something as simple as being able at will to walk out my front door and take a walk outside.

One of the interviewees in The Tunnel Dwellers of New York, a woman who prior to that point had been fairly upbeat about her life down there, is asked what she would most want if she were granted one wish.

Soon she is in tears as she responds that more than anything she just wants a normal life, with a normal home, even if it’s the smallest, most modest of apartments. More than once she mentions as an example of how that would make her life different the fact that she could take a shower whenever she wanted.

Yeah. No one’s life is perfect or even close to it, and plenty of the complaining we do is justified. But if you, today, can walk into your bathroom at home whenever you please and take a nice, hot shower, don’t just take that for granted, because many people don’t have that luxury. Enjoy it and appreciate it, along with the countless other blessings that go along with simply having a “normal” life.