‘Mole People’ who lived secretly among rats in abandoned underground tunnels’

In New York, it's only natural to look up at the city's imposing, iconic skyscrapers.

But cast an eye downwards, into the subterranean spaces beneath the pavement, and you'll find a much different kind of tourist attraction that's every bit as fascinating as the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center.

For many years, a community dubbed the 'Mole People', who lived on the fringes of society, made their homes in underground shantytowns built in the city's disused Subway tunnels among the rats and rubble.

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The infamous 'Freedom Tunnel', a 2.6-mile long burrow named after graffiti artist Chris 'Freedom' Pape who painted his work on its walls, is where many of the so-called Mole People chose to settle.

The passage, once used by Amtrak trains travelling to and from Pennsylvania Station, runs beneath Riverside Park in Manhattan.

When trains stopped running in 1980, it became a den for the homeless. By 1994, it had almost 100 residents.

Providing shelter and relative safety that rough sleepers weren't always afforded on the mean streets of New York, the tunnels did, however, have problems of their own, including drugs, rats and freezing temperatures.

Filmmaker Erik K. Swanson went underground to meet tunnel dwellers in 2008. The footage was finally released earlier this year.

In his YouTube film, called Mole People – Living in the Tunnels Beneath New York, we meet Walter, who had lived in the space for 20 years. His home had electricity, a computer, stereo and oven.

Walter, who gave his age as nearing 60, is seen proudly showing off the Betty Boop slippers he liked to wear while pottering around in his underground home.

He said: “When I’m in my house, I can play my movies, play music, I have my books, I make my own meals, I have a toaster oven.”

Another man, Carlos was living in the Amtrak tunnel in 2007 when he bumped into Swanson.

In the film, he tells how he had struggled to hold down a job, but preferred life in the tunnels to shelters above ground, which he described as "wicked", rife with drugs and violence.

“I got everything I need you know, I got my own place, everything is ok,” he said.

Carlos, whose home was equipped with heating, a microwave, fridge, and computer, had lived there for two years.

However, not everyone had a positive experience living in the tunnels.

Rob Staskiewicz, a homeless veteran who spent 17 years in prison, lived in tunnels beneath Penn Station and Hudson Yards.

He told the Guardian: “Living in the tunnels sucks, man.

"It’s horrible. You can’t shower, you can’t eat. There are people who only come out for supplies.

"You got tunnels uptown, you got subway tunnels that are cut off. Midtown is best cause there’s the most people around.”

The Freedom Tunnel first reopened in 1991, leading to mass evictions and the demolition of the underground homes but in the years following, homeless people found a way back inside.

The Mole People, Walter and Carlos included, were forced out of their shantytown homes around 2009 when Amtrak started to reclaim the space, using it as storage.

Sadly, according to Swanson, Walter died after being hit by a train in 2012.

He said he waited 14 years to edit and publish the footage "out of respect for Walter's privacy and the secrecy of his home".

Today, urban explorers and curious folk with a disregard for their own safety often venture into the Freedom Tunnel to admire and photograph the graffiti art that adorns the walls.

Swanson returned to the space in August and noted the transformation.

He said: “I went back down to the tunnel the other day. Much has changed since the last time I was there, and even more so, since this video was shot.

"No one lives in this section of tunnel any more. The entire area has been cleaned out, and is used as storage for Amtrak maintenance trains and equipment. There is a lot of activity right in the area – construction, park maintenance crews, etc.

“I ran into one former tunnel resident and another man who lives elsewhere. They confirmed that everyone was cleared out several years ago, and regular sweeps of this area are done by the cops.”


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