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The Tunnel
Margaret Morton

[Yale University Press, fall 1995]
160 pages, 60 photographs

One of the oldest surviving homeless communities in New York City stretches for two and a half miles underground on the Upper West Side. Hidden from public view in an abandoned freight tunnel, this habitation existed for sixteen years before it was discovered by Amtrak crews renewing track for passenger service between Pennsylvania Station and Albany. Most of the residents of the fifty-block-long community refused to leave, and the population has continued to increase as the more visible homeless encampments are demolished by the city.

The earliest tunnel residents live alongside the tracks in cinderblock structures originally built as storage facilities. More recent tunnel dwellers have built plywood shanties or perched themselves on narrow ledges. Shafts of light angle through air vents. Dwellings are clustered around these points of entry and on the light-washed walls are images and writing left by graffiti artists.

An underground water source was shut off in the early 1980's. Tunnel residents are now forced to walk miles below and above ground to obtain water and food. Meals are cooked over fires that also serve to combat the damp chill. Residents recycle the discarded furniture and cookware of nearby apartment dwellers to create their own homes.

Among the tunnel residents was John, who wandered in, searching for a safe place to sleep after being attacked on a park bench.

So I kept walking to the back and found this house and started to clean it and fix it up. They were there for the workers.... I had to walk around the street at night to look for things that I wanted to put into it. And sometimes I had to carry it ten to fifteen blocks just to get it down.

John stayed for over twenty years, taking into his care fifteen abandoned cats and three stray dogs.

Bernard entered the tunnel in 1985. He supports himself by collecting cans in the early morning hours for redemption at a recycling center. Known as "The Lord of the Tunnel," Bernard became the spokesperson for the tunnel residents when they were threatened with eviction in 1991.

I have no regrets.... This existence has done so much for me. It's taken me from the vanity.... People think it's about laying back and being shiftless out here and it's not. A day-to-day existence can be most intense.
— Bernard

Cathy came to the tunnel in 1986 to join Joe, a Vietnam veteran she had met in Riverside Park. Disabled with asthma and epilepsy, Cathy had left her job in a law firm after her husband had died and her child had been killed. Although Joe had moved into one of the concrete rooms of the tunnel in 1973, it was not until Cathy arrived that he painted, added a door, and salvaged furniture. Cathy found pillows and blankets along the streets.

All the people "upstairs" have to do is get up out of their warm bed and walk into the kitchen and make what they need. We got to get up and go in front of a fire; make sure you have your paper and your this and your that or you don't eat. There's no delivery trucks coming down here with wood and supplies. The garbage cans is where we find our stuff.
— Cathy

Cathy adopted eighteen stray cats and a dog named "Buddy."

I'm not going to bring a child into this. It's hard for me and Joe to manage now. We're gonna take care of a baby? What if I have a baby? They're gonna put me in a shelter. I'm not going to live in one of those places. That's why we're down here. I got my little family, and that's enough. If you're feeling bad, they make you feel better. They're not like people, they're not two-faced. So that why I love my animals.
— Cathy

Reviews for The Tunnel

Other books: Fragile Dwelling, Transitory Gardens

Publication of The Tunnel was partially supported by the New York Foundation on the Arts. Margaret Morton's ongoing project has been partially supported by grants from the Graham Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

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The Tunnel
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Revised: October 2000