The hole I was digging was about three feet deep and halfway under the wall when I ran into a tarpaulin imbedded in the dirt. It caught at my shovel strangely, and I couldn’t tell what I’d run into in the nighttime darkness until I took out my flashlight. I knelt down next to the hole to see.
The beam of my flashlight showed the dirty blue plastic and then, as I prodded it with the shovel, I saw a half-rotten shoe sticking out of the worm-infested folds. A dead body. The idea filled my mind with a sudden wave of revulsion and horror. For a moment I couldn’t move. Then I reached out and slowly pulled on a corner of the tarp. The shoe tumbled out, attached to nothing, and behind it there was only dirt.
I let out a breath that I hadn’t known I was holding and sagged against the handle of the shovel. My moment of panic was over but my heart was still racing. I didn’t want to keep digging by myself, and so I walked over to the stairs leading into the next terrace of the park and waited for my friend Elinor to get back from her cigarette run. When she returned, she sat down with me and we both smoked a Camel before starting to dig again.
We were in Riverside Park, and the only light came from a crescent moon and from the occasional passing car on the West Side Highway. In the darkness there was nothing visible but the stunted grass of the field, and beyond that the leafless trees were outlined against the clouds that moved raggedly across the October sky. As we returned to our surreptitious nocturnal digging, I felt like a grave-robber in a horror story.
Next to us, the 15-foot stone wall leading to the next terrace of the park was a dark mass, the light barely enough to make out its texture. We kept our flashlights off as we dug so as not to be seen—though it was unlikely anyone else would be in this desolate area in the middle of the night.
We were trying to get into the West Side Line tunnel, a two-and-a-half-mile long tunnel that runs underneath Riverside Park from 72nd Street to 123rd Street. The tunnel was created in the 1930s when an existing line—the New York Central Railroad’s West Side Line, that dated back to 1849—was lowered beneath ground level and covered over. The line was abandoned in 1982 and the massive subterranean space was taken over by a community of homeless New Yorkers who were quickly dubbed the “Mole People.” The squatters built plywood shacks and wired in electricity from streetlights on the surface; water for drinking and washing came from Riverside Park’s public bathrooms or occasionally from tapping into pipes that ran close to the tunnel’s walls. Then Amtrak acquired rights to the tunnel; they kicked everyone out, bulldozed the shacks, and began running trains again in 1991.
From what I had read—researching in old newspaper articles, and the few books that mentioned the tunnel in recent decades—it seemed like the last of the mole people were gone by 1995. I hadn’t been able to find any information about the tunnel since then, though. I was intrigued; I wanted to see it. I wanted to see what traces of the one-time community remained, and I wanted to know—is anyone still down there?
One of the newspaper articles had mentioned that, during the heyday of the underground community, the residents who lived close to the center of the tunnel had created new entrances by digging underneath a retaining wall in the park. When the Parks Department found these holes, they would fill them in, but the mole people just dug new ones the next day, according to the article. It sounded easy and quick, as if it was just necessary to clear some dirt from under the wall to make a space big enough to slip through. We’d even found a place where the ground looked like it had been dug up and replaced, assuming that it would be easier to dig through the site of an old, filled-in tunnel than through undisturbed ground. But we had already been digging for more than two hours, hacking through the rocky earth, and when we finally reached the bottom of the wall, we found it was solid concrete at least two feet thick. We would have to actually tunnel underneath it. Even without the tarp slowing down our progress, it was clear we’d be digging for a while longer before we could get all the way under the wall.
Later, I would find out how foolish our labor was—there are far easier ways in at the ends of the tunnel, although there is no entrance within a mile of where we dug that night. Now that I’m more experienced, I’ll usually look at current and old city maps, review satellite images, and walk at least some of the route on the surface when I’m trying to get into a new tunnel. But this was the first city tunnel I had tried to get into, and at the time it seemed reasonable that I would have to dig my way into something underground.
Eventually, I had dug out enough that I could reach through and feel empty space. We cleared out a little more dirt so we could squeeze our bodies through. I put my flashlight in my mouth, and then pushed myself headfirst down and into the hole. It was a tremendously awkward entrance. I pushed with my elbows, scraped my ribs, got dirt and trash down my shirt collar, and even thought I was stuck for a moment, but eventually I was through.
I stood up with the eerie sensation that I get when I go from a warm sunny day into the dim, hushed coolness of a cathedral. At first it seemed that the space just stretched on forever around me. Even when I realized it wasn’t infinite, I could still see that it was very, very big. My flashlight beam barely showed the far wall, a little over 60 feet away. The tunnel is about 30 feet high, and I was standing in a sort of concrete compartment built about two-thirds of the way up one wall. It was about five feet deep and twelve feet long, bordered at each end by massive rusty I-beams that support the roof. The top of the tunnel is wider than the bottom, like the cap of a mushroom, and we had dug underneath the edge of that outer cap; the compartment I was in is basically the dead space where the top section fits over the main structure of the tunnel. If I were to sit or lie down, I realized, I’d be invisible from the track level, making it a perfect little bedroom niche. I’d already felt that there was debris under my feet, and now I looked and saw that I was standing on the rotting remnants of a long-ago squatter’s life: mouldering shoes, clothes, damp and blackened books, bottles and cans, more shoes, and something that was once a blanket, everything mixed together into the disgusting strata of a landfill and so damaged by water and time that all the items were now the same shade of a fetid dark gray. The tarp and shoe that had so frightened me earlier had been part of this mass of garbage.
Elinor kicked her way through our little hole. She brushed ineffectually at the dirt smeared into her shirt. After crawling through the trash and dirt, I felt like I was covered with crushed worms and spiders too, but no matter; we were in.
Elinor got out the cigarettes as she stared around and I reached for one. As I smoked I looked down at the floor of the tunnel below; we might be able to drop down without hurting ourselves, but I couldn’t see how we could climb back up. It was fifteen feet or more, and the smooth concrete wall offered no holds.
“How the hell can we get down?” I said, wishing we’d thought to bring a rope. Elinor suggested we use the tarp. “We can tie one end to that thing. Hopefully those cables aren’t still being used.” She pointed her light at her feet, where rusty bolts held up two old electric cables that were strung along the wall.
The tarp was a little rotten and a little torn, but still strong enough to support us. I worried more about the sixty-year-old bolts. We slid down one at a time, arms and legs wrapped around the makeshift rope, getting even dirtier in the process.
The air was dusty enough that I could see the particles glittering faintly in the beams of our flashlights as we walked along the wide expanse of dirt on one side of the tunnel. In the center there are two parallel tracks, for trains running north and south. Amtrak’s Empire Service line is the one that passes through the tunnel, and the trains continue north across the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge to the Bronx and then on up the Hudson Valley. We stepped hesitantly and slowly, not talking, afraid to disturb the ominous quiet and unsure what to do now that we were in.
We passed a huge mound of old trash bulldozed against a wall, evidence of the people who had once lived here and the subsequent clean-up by the Amtrak workers. Dozens or hundreds of niches like the one we’d entered through lined the upper portion of the tunnel’s west wall, and I wondered how many had housed people.
Graffiti was scattered throughout the tunnel, both simple tags and huge colorful pieces, all layered on top of each other and mixed together with aphorisms and messages—“This city will chew you up and spit you out,” and “R.I.P. SANE,” and “’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the tunnel, not a creature was stirring, not even a rat…” On later visits I came to understand that the most desirable spots for murals are the places where ventilation gratings let sunlight in, and this is part of why so many pieces are drawn over each other in clustered layers of paint.
Some of the only murals left undisturbed were the giant black, white, and silver paintings done in the 1980s by a painter named “Freedom.” The murals range from about ten to twenty feet tall, and were pained with the help of a ladder. They range from a Dali-style melting clock, dripping its way down the wall, to a replica of a Ted Williams baseball card, to huge portraits of tunnel residents that are now long-gone. Freedom first found his way into the tunnel when he was 14, and visited constantly for years, making friends with the residents and creating the murals specifically for them, his only audience. These murals have a tremendous impact when they suddenly appear in the beam of a flashlight, the faces gleaming like an old albumen photographic print. Most were already more than a decade old by the time I first saw them, and the fact that so many remained unscathed demonstrated the respect Freedom had earned from his fellow writers. A portrait of the Mona Lisa’s face was one of the few Freedom works that had been tampered with; a new piece of graffiti covered the bottom half of with ten-foot-high mural. But the newer tag had itself been painted over with the words "Where's your respect, toy?"
We walked on the tracks, stopping to see the things that leapt out of the blackness into the beams of our flashlights, with no idea of how far we’d come or how long we’d been underground. Eventually, we realized it was almost five in the morning and decided to head back.
On our way back to the hole, we heard a train coming. It was just a low rumble at first, coming from all around us, and for a few moments I thought I was just imagining it. Then Elinor heard it too and we both stopped and looked down the tunnel behind us. Far away, the darkness of the tunnel was inexplicably brightening like an underground dawn in the moments just before the orb of the sun is visible. Then the headlights of the train itself appeared around the curve, moving dangerously fast, and the full roar of the engine hit us.
We sprinted for a wall, turning off the flashlights as the light and noise of the train filled the space around us. After so long in darkness and the silence, it was deafening and blinding; the air hummed with the brightness of the light, and the concrete wall shook with the sound. Then the engine flashed past and the beams of the headlights swept on down the tunnel. I caught a quick-flash filmstrip view of heads silhouetted through the windows, the smell of dust and steel, and the clashing of the steel wheels on the rails.
For the short moment that the train was actually passing the tunnel had been bright as day and we felt exposed—we must have been seen, there seemed no chance that all these people could pass 15 feet from us and not know we were there. But the bright-lit faces in the windows had all been staring straight ahead; and then it was gone, heading uptown, across the river, and out of the city, and we were left with the darkness and silence again.
We made our way back to our starting point and climbed up the tarpaulin to the debris-filled ledge with our hole. We decided to walk north along the ledge before going back to the surface. We edged past concrete partitions and climbed around the huge, rusty steel I-beams that support the roof of the tunnel. After walking a few hundred feet, we found a bed—a sleeping bag laid over slabs of foam padding. It had obviously been used recently. Though we stepped over the bedroll and walked on, I felt nervous. It was clear we weren’t the only ones to come to the tunnel, and I wasn’t sure what kind of people the others would turn out to be. These residents already lived on the very margin of the city; would they be angry that, after they had been pushed out of our world, we had invaded theirs?
I could tell Elinor was feeling worried, too, though she seemed less affected than I was. She suddenly dropped down on her knees to look through a narrow space between girders. "Here kitty—come here, kitty…"
I peered over her shoulder and saw two cats, wary and fierce-looking, standing immobile and staring at her. I moved for a better view between girders and suddenly realized that I was looking into an entire room built into the side of the tunnel: clothes were hung on a line stretched from corner to corner, a dingy table was sitting next to a battered chair, and an antiquated radio kept company with a couple more cats perched on the table. The more I looked, the more cats I saw: half-hidden behind the clothesline, perched in the shadowed areas of the girders on the sides, and looking back at us from every corner of the room. All of them were staring at us warily, their eyes gleaming wickedly in the light from our flashlights.
We all stood still for a moment.
"Wow," said Elinor, "look at all those cats."
The cats seemed well-fed and at home; along one wall we could see a messy row of food bowls, disposable aluminum trays, and water dishes made from the bottom halves of plastic gallon jugs. The scene was bizarre; who would make a home here, buried in this nocturnal room with two dozen cats? I felt something in my stomach halfway between nervousness and fear.
In following years I would get to know Brooklyn, the woman who lived in that room and fed the cats. Homeless as a teenager, she had found her way into the tunnel the first time by following the half-wild cats that she’d begun to feed in Riverside Park.
“I came, I looked under the wall, I said ‘Oh! Look at all these cats!’ and then I felt sorry for them. I fell in love with the cats so I would come everyday and bring them cat food. And my cats love me. I’m all they have…” she told me, years after that first visit.
At the time, however, I knew none of this. Instead, I felt the weight of all the darkness behind me like a rising tide, and I wanted nothing more than to escape to the surface.
We headed back, passing the bed and then climbing back over the partitions and past the steel beams. When we got to the hole, Elinor went through first. I handed through the flashlights and then squeezed myself through, pushing with my feet against a half-buried cooking pot. I'd stopped noticing that the tunnel air was dusty or stale, but when I finally took a breath of New York City air, it was the purest, sweetest, cleanest thing I've ever tasted and I could smell the open space, the autumn breezes, and the light of the first fingers of dawn.
As an urban historian & photographer, I try to peel back the layers of a city to see what's underneath. From the tops of bridges to the depths of sewer tunnels, these explorations of the urban environment help me puzzle together the interconnected, multi-dimensional history and complexity of the world's great cities.