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Tunnel People

I first heard about New York's tunnel people in 1992 when I met Terry Williams, an ethnographer specialising in urban issues. Williams described them as 'a new class of people who have been rejected by society and became in fact invisible.'

Immediately, I was intrigued and began to read as much as I could on the subject. A lot of the reporting was sensationalist. It was said that in the complicated labyrinth of hundreds of kilometres of subways and railroad tunnels, thousands of homeless people had found a home. The subterranean world was painted as Dante's Inferno, the tunnel people labelled with sensational names such as 'Mole People' and CHUDS: 'Cannibalistic Human Underground Dwellers'. There were urban legends about subway maintenance workers who had disappeared without a trace, having met their final destiny on the roasting spits of starving savages.

In trying to document the tunnel people in a more nuanced way, I decided to use my professional training in anthropology and its favourite research method of participant observation. As the name implies, the researcher moves between a role of distant observer at certain times, to an involved actor at other times.

To get closer to the tunnel people, I asked to live in the tunnel myself and was offered a little bunker where I could stay. I focused on one colony, the one living in the Amtrak railroad tunnel that runs under Riverside Park from 72nd to 125th Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side. I estimated that approximately thirty to fifty people lived in the Amtrak tunnel, scattered in small groups. In total I spent about five months in the tunnel - two months at the end of 1994 and another three months in the summer of 1995 - during which time I took part as much as possible in the daily life of the tunnel dwellers.

Apart from my bunker in the tunnel, I also had a room in Brooklyn where I could escape after three or four days of tunnel life to wash up, develop my film, work out my field notes and ponder new research questions. This was not a luxury for a researcher, since in the tunnel I was constantly submerged in new information and bizarre events. 'Never a dull moment,' as one of the tunnel dwellers said.

In the end, my research did not result in an objective case study in a purely anthropological sense, but became instead more of a subjective, journalistic reporting on life in a dynamic community in which I became more and more involved. From the outset, I made it very clear to those living in the tunnels who I was, and what I was aiming at. I had the luck to come in contact with Bernard, a well-educated, reliable and honest man with a great sense of humour, with whom I felt immediately at ease. Bernard was crucial as my guide, and in the course of my tunnel sojourn we became great friends.

Some people I showed some of my earlier publications as a form of reference letter. Others, for various reasons, were slow to understand the nature of my mission and only realised after months that I was not another homeless man, but a reporter. Most people, however, accepted my presence, and the reasons for it, rather quickly. They were used to journalists, but had never seen a reporter who would actually sleep in the tunnels and help with the daily - and dirty - chores of collecting cans, getting firewood and carrying water. At first, some assumed I was crazy, but after a while most treated me with respect.

* This is an extract from Teun Voeten's book Tunnel People, published in 2010, which includes an update on what happened to the people he met in the tunnel back in the 1990s.
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