Tunnel People

Tunnel People

by Teun Voeten

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Following the homeless Manhattanites who, in the mid-1990s, chose to start a new life in the tunnel systems of the city, this record tells the stories of a variety of tunnel dwellers from the perspective of an award-winning, European photojournalist who lived and worked with them for 5 months. Photographs and personal accounts detail the struggles and pleasures—including the government’s eviction of the tunnel people and Amtrak’s offering them alternative housing—of Vietnam veterans, macrobiotic hippies, crack addicts, Cuban refugees, convicted killers, computer programmers, philosophical recluses, and criminal runaways. Humorous and compassionate, it also describes what has happened to these individuals 13 years since they’ve left.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604860702
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 09/11/2010
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.94(w) x 11.24(h) x 0.78(d)

About the Author

Teun Voeten is an award-winning photojournalist whose work has been published in National Geographic, Newsweek, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. He is the author of How De Body? One Man’s Terrifying Journey Through an African War and A Ticket To and a contributing photographer for many organizations, including Doctors without Borders, Human Rights Watch, the International Red Cross, and the United Nations.

Read an Excerpt

Tunnel People

By Teun Voeten

PM Press

Copyright © 2010 Teun Voeten
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-448-9



The mouth of the tunnel looms a few hundred feet wide. Broken down railroad tracks wind between a forest of steel and concrete pillars and disappear into the darkness, into the netherworld I am about to enter. Professor Terry Williams leads me inside the tunnel, into the unknown. Slowly, the daylight disappears behind our backs, until we are engulfed by a cold, damp darkness. I shiver. I don't like dark caves with hidden dens, and to make it even worse, today is Halloween. I'm not in the mood for crazy tunnel people popping up out of the darkness with Dracula masks and bloody butcher knives. Quietly I curse at Williams, who thought today would be the perfect day to bring me into the tunnel.

The entrance of the tunnel is under a fly-over from the West Side Highway, where Riverside Park starts at 72nd Street. The park is a narrow green strip that stretches along the Hudson till it reaches the tip of Manhattan. On the east, the park borders posh apartment buildings. Farther up north along the park, the cozy and comfy West Side slowly transforms into the projects of Harlem to finally end in the mean streets of Washington Heights. And right underneath the park winds the tunnel, in a near perfect straight line from south to north, fifty blocks long. In the park people are jogging, yuppies are walking their dogs, young mothers push their strollers, without knowing that right underneath their very feet is a hidden underworld.

At the entrance of the tunnel, people have chained shopping carts with old clothes and empty bottles to a fence. The blades of a discarded fan turn slowly in the chilly November breeze. The hundreds of pillars that support the ceiling are covered in tags and graffiti. Here at the entrance, the ceiling is actually an elegant, late-nineteenth-century cast iron construction. One hundred years ago, this place was a busy terminal for riverboats and freight trains. At the end of the '60s, the terminal became obsolete and slowly deteriorated into a no man's land where only the intrepid or the desperate ventured.

In between the wood of the pillars, I see little shacks. Some are cubicles, constructed quite laboriously from plywood and tin sheeting, other are just sloppy tents flung together with some poles and plastic sheets.

"Some new shacks since I was here last time," Williams says. In the dark, people are warming themselves around a fire that's burning in an empty oil drum. Farther down, a man is sawing a giant piece of wood.

We descend deeper into the tunnel. Some train tracks have dead ends and are covered by garbage. Other tracks merge through rusty switches. In the darkness we stumble over old clothes, broken bottles, empty boxes, wrecked shopping charts. I stumble over a book. With my flashlight I see it is a copy of Lord of the Flies. A nauseating smell of rotting garbage and excrement penetrates my nose. Rats are rummaging through waste but flee when we approach to disappear into holes and cracks beneath the tracks. I'm glad I just had my tetanus, diphtheria, and typhoid shots renewed.

After what seems like half an hour, there is no more daylight left. Now it has become pitch black. With my flashlight I see the tunnel has narrowed with only two train tracks left.

"Watch out for booby traps," warns Williams. "Some people here don't like visitors and have dug deep holes. You'll break your leg if you fall in one of them." Maybe Williams wants to scare me, or maybe he is paranoid. He might also be right, so I just follow his example and proceed by walking on the tracks.

After fifteen minutes of walking, the tunnel bends slightly to the right and we cannot see the entrance any more. Faint daylight falls through grates in the ceiling. The park should be right above us. We hear children playing and yelling. Underneath the grates, the tunnel widens and we enter a space with some concrete bunkers. Williams explains that these bunkers were used by maintenance workers to take their lunch breaks and store their equipment. A deafening barking rings through the tunnel. On top of one of the bunkers is a dirty pack of dogs. An old man appears from behind a moldy carpet that covers the entrance of the bunker. "Joe, everything okay?" calls Williams. The old man grumbles something and returns to his bunker.

"Well, Joe isn't in the mood today." Williams shrugs his shoulders. Joe is a Vietnam vet who has been living in the tunnel for over twenty years, Williams tells me. He lives together with his wife Cathy and their thirty cats. The dogs belong to his neighbor.

We continue. It becomes pitch black again for ten minutes, and with our weak flashlights we stumble through the darkness. Then, there are more grates piercing the roof at regular intervals. A dim light drives the darkness away. After another ten minutes of walking, we come to another widening with six, seven bunkers. "We've arrived," says Williams, "Bernard's camp."

Williams calls his name out loud. Through a grate in the ceiling, filtered daylight illuminates what is Bernard's camp. Boxes with empty bottles and cans are scattered all around. Four identical metal folding chairs are placed against two giant pillars that support the ceiling of the tunnel. A pile of magazines is on one of the chairs: Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, The New Yorker. It looks like a doctor's waiting room.

Behind the pillars lies a huge open space with old cupboards filled with coffee cans, boxes of cereal, and bags of spaghetti. In the middle of the open space, I see some chairs placed around a fire that glows between two large stones. On top of it sits a blackened grill. On the dark wall behind the fireplace I can discern a giant mural. A firing squad is executing several people; one of the victims spreads his arms desperately toward the sky. It is a reproduction of Goya's Third of May, Williams explains, made by graffiti artists from the neighborhood.

Williams calls Bernard a second time. Finally, a tall dark man appears from one of the bunkers. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Terry. I just had to finish up something." The two shake hands cordially. "So this is Bernard," says Williams, "New York's most famous homeless man." Bernard smiles and gives me a firm handshake. Rasta curls emerge from under his white baseball cap. He wears a white sweatshirt that has Goofy on a skateboard printed on it. Due to the darkness and his cap, I can hardly see Bernard's features. I only see a row of white teeth shining in a black face.

Williams and Bernard start talking about the latest events. A man was killed yesterday in the park. Bernard knew the victim. It was Walter, a homeless man who slept in a cardboard box under a bridge.

"Slashed by some crazy twenty-one-year-old Dominican kid. Right above us, here on 95 Street." Bernard points up to the gray sky visible through the grate.

"The kid was freaked out. He cut out Walter's eyeball, pulled off his pants," Bernard continues. He seems upset by the murder. "Walter was a good guy. Damn, he never bothered anyone. Can you believe it, Terry? The cops arrested the kid on Broadway while he was waving the knife and the bloodstained pants around." Bernard sighs. "What a world. It can happen to fucking anybody."

He shakes his head and stares at the ground. Williams breaks the silence and introduces me as a Dutch photographer who wants to do an article on the tunnel. Bernard cheers up. In a few minutes, we have worked things out. Bernard will be my guide. We will start after tomorrow. "Just call my name through the intercom," he says. "Then I'll get you up top." He points at the grate. "My mailbox and intercom, it's on the exit of the West Side Highway on 95 Street. You can't miss it."

Bernard apologizes and says he has work obligations. He walks us half a mile farther up north through the darkness. Then there is an opening in the tunnel wall with a stairwell that leads to another gate. We are suddenly bathed in broad daylight again, the gate exits onto a playground in the park. This is the Northern Gate, Bernard explains, another emergency exit from the tunnel.

"Before, we had to crawl through a hole in the ground," he says as he unlocks the chain at the gate. "This way, it's a lot easier." A friendly Amtrak worker gave him the key for the lock. Bernard leaves us at the playground and disappears back into the darkness.

The light and fresh air feel good as we walk back to Broadway. "You can't find a better guide than Bernard," Williams says. Over the years, Bernard had become more than just an object of study; the two became good friends.

"Bernard gets nothing from all these interviews," Williams says. "He knows it too, but he just loves all the attention."



On my way to my meeting with Bernard, I walk down 95 Street towards River Side Park and the Hudson. Under the bridge where Walter must have been killed, yellow police ribbons lie strewn on the ground around the mud and broken bottles. POLICE LINE. DO NOT CROSS they say in big bold capitals. A man in the corner sleeps under a blanket. He peeps out from underneath, throws me an ugly glance, then he turns around and crawls back under his covers.

Further down is the entry and exit for the West Side Highway. Dodging speeding cars, I manage to reach a traffic island and see the grates, the tunnel intercom. Bending over, I peer into the darkness below and recognize some of the graffiti and the boxes with empty bottles. As loudly as possible, I scream Bernard's name a few times. Only a few feet behind me, cars are hurling by. I call out a few more times, but no answer.

Sitting on a wall in the park, a black man is waving at me. I had seen him earlier, but somehow he did not register. Now I recognize the Rasta hairdo as Bernard's. "I'm sorry, I had not recognized you without your Goofy shirt," I apologize.

He laughs. "Once in a while, I put on clean clothes."

Bernard wears a Yankees baseball cap and an Adidas sports jacket, clean jeans and fresh white sneakers. Now in broad daylight, I can clearly see him for the first time. Williams had told me that Bernard used to be a photo model. It is believable: Bernard is a handsome man, tall and trim with a straight nose, thin lips and a high forehead. I guess him to be in his mid-thirties. When he smiles, his lips curl in a beautiful curve and reveal impeccable teeth. His lively eyes are scrutinizing me.

We walk through the park to the entry of the tunnel at the playground, the North Gate. Bernard opens up the padlock with his private key. On the stairwell inside, there is hardly room to walk. We squeeze past three supermarket carts that cram the space. Rusty beams above us function as bookshelves. Next to popular magazines and flashy bestsellers there are books with titles like Handbook Of Dermatology and Mathematics Made Easy. A stone replica of the Acropolis doubles as a bookstand. A plastic pumpkin smiles at me with a stupid, toothless grin.

"All this mess is from Tony," Bernard explains. "The idiot is creating fire hazards. If he goes on like this, we will all be kicked out." He points at the shopping cart. Tony has tied a woman's hat with flowers to it, as well as a Barbie doll, some Christmas decorations and aluminum photo frames. An umbrella and a TV antenna stick out from under a pile of wood. On top, a few empty cans and some porn mags. Tony finds all the junk on the streets and sells it to whoever wants it. Bernard pulls on a few sheets of Formica-covered particle board. "Totally useless as firewood," he grumbles. "The guy doesn't have a clue."

We descend the stairs. Today, it is a sunny, clear day, and the grates allow more daylight in than a few days ago, when the tunnel was dipped in darkness and the surroundings were hard to discern. Bernard points out some graffiti pieces on the tunnel walls. Diffuse light filtering through the grates illuminates the work softly from above, like in a museum. The works are giant portraits, five feet high, which look like photographs because they are spray painted in black and white. I recognize John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and the Mona Lisa. Farther down is a painting of a street kid in a macho leather jacket, striking a cool pose with his hands in his pockets. His head and neck are a phallus-shaped object.

I ask Bernard about the sharply dressed penis. He laughs. "You are the fourth guy asking the same question. You journalists think everything looks like a dick. Don't you see it is a spray can?"

On closer inspection, it does look like a spray can. The pieces are by artist Chris Pape, aka Freedom. The spray can with his hands in his pockets is Pape's self-portrait. When the graffiti rage started, the tunnel became a favorite playground for the graffiti scene. The spray painters entered through emergency exits or the tunnel mouth at 72 Street. Bernard ran into them and became good friends with many, especially Chris Pape.

Near his camp, Bernard points out the portrait Pape made of him. "It doesn't look like me," he says disappointedly. In fact, the portrait resembles an unshaven American soldier out of the Second World War with a cigarette in his mouth. What looks like a helmet is actually the hood of a sweatshirt, drawn halfway over the eyes.

Next to it is a portrait of an old, wrinkled squint-eyed guy, with a sarcastic grin and a protruding under lip. It is Bob, Bernard's old neighbor who has moved back to the world above.

Bernard takes me to the fireplace, where he offers me a chair and immediately begins to talk. "The world up top thinks we are just drug addicts and alcoholics." Bernard leans back at his ease in an old office chair, his feet resting on the grill of the smoldering fireplace.

"But to survive here, you have to be able to provide for the three basic necessities: water, firewood and food. This is no place for crackheads." He points at the fireplace with the filthy black grate, clogged with chunks of grease and soot. "Our grill. That's where we cook."

Against a wall is a box full of extra thick Sunday Times. Next to it sits a pile of pine wood.

"Wood and old papers to start the fire," Bernard explains. "And here," he takes me behind the grill, "unlimited kitchen supplies."

Just below a giant mural, there is a huge collection of pots, pans, kettles and coffeemakers, all covered in a thin layer of dust and soot. On the grill, knives and forks are soaking in a small pan of water. A thin membrane of dirt floats on top of the water.

"Homeless? Here is my home." Bernard continues. "This is the kitchen. Fully equipped with stuff I found on the street. I got a living room of twenty city blocks. Few people up top can say the same. Before I wound up here, I was in a cheap hotel. I could only bear it for two weeks. Ten bucks a night for a place where you could hardly move your ass and where you were surrounded by trash, noise, and chaos. In the tunnels, there is a strange sort of peace. Here I finally found my peace of mind."

Bernard sees me looking at the dark space behind the column, where garbage has been piling up in a big heap. "That's what visitors notice when they come down here. The rats and the trash, empty wine and crack bottles. But hey, you can find that up top as well. And the garbage, well, what the fuck do you want? The Sanitation Department doesn't come down here." Bernard makes himself at ease at the fireplace and continues. "Journalists come here with preconceived opinions," he explains. "They only see the mess, but they fail to see the essence: brotherhood, a sense of community, that's the key thing here. And up till now, no one ever understood that."

I take a note of it. Bernard continues what starts to sound like a lecture. "I've learned more about life here than I ever would do up top. Tunnel life was a spiritual rebirth. And I tell you, if tomorrow my time were to come, I could say at least that I was a free person. Nobody could ever take this experience away from me. And if I could choose, I would do it again."

Bernard is an eloquent speaker, his vocabulary is peppered with sophisticated words like oblivious, impeccable, elusive, words I have to look up later in a dictionary. He is orating slowly, so I have enough time to write down every word he says. Later, I will hear him repeat exactly the same monologue to fellow journalists in the tunnel.

Bernard explains that disgust with life up top drove him down into the tunnel. Greed and chaos are keywords in his philosophy. "There is enough for fucking everybody on the planet. Enough living space, enough food, enough water, enough everything. But this world is ruled by greed. Greed destroys everything."


Excerpted from Tunnel People by Teun Voeten. Copyright © 2010 Teun Voeten. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

A short note to the 2010 translated and updated edition 8

Part 1 Autumn

November & December 1994

1 Halloween 13

2 The Simplicity of Being 17

3 Lord of the Tunnel 28

4 Canning 101 40

5 Southern Neighbors 50

6 Daily Routine 58

7 The Secret Life of Plants 71

8 Tony the Tomato Plant 79

9 Big-Ass Beams 91

10 A Rat Called Mouse 102

11 Suicide on Christmas Eve 108

Part 2 Summer

June, July, August & September 1995

12 Back in the Tunnel 117

13 Little Havana 127

14 The Adventures of Frankie, Part I: Frankie is in Love 135

15 The Homeless Debate of the '90s 136

16 The Truly Chosen 150

17 Frankie's Adventures, Part 2: Frankie Checks Out Asses 157

18 Kicked Out of the Tunnel 159

19 Little Havana Revisited 164

20 The Adventures of Frankie, Part 3: Kathy and Joe Complain about Frankie 171

21 Searching for Mole People 173

22 The Adventures of Frankie, Part 4: A Baby in the Tunnel 182

23 Aid Workers vs. Mole People 184

24 The Adventures of Frankie, Part 5: Frankie Talks about His Father 195

25 Housing Ahead 198

26 The Adventures of Frankie, Part 6: Frankie Is Mad at His Fiancée 208

27 The Case of Bob 209

28 The Adventures of Frankie, Part 7: Stupid Plans 219

29 Advanced Canning I Big Shot Tony 221

30 Advanced Canning II Pier John 229

31 Advanced Canning III: WeCan 232

32 Lord of the Tunnel Again 235

33 The Adventures of Frankie, Part 8 Frankie Makes Mashed Potatoes 239

34 Burglary in the Tunnel 242

35 In the Lion's Den 245

36 Hopeless Little Havana 246

Part 3 Winter

January 1996

37 The Tunnel Empties 255

38 The Adventures of Frankie, Part 9: Out of the Tunnel 260

39 Murder for the Garbage 261

Part 4 Epilogue

September 2009

40 Thirteen Years Later 267

41 Tracking Down the Tunnel People 1 Bob Ment Bernard Frankie Joe Kathy Julio Tony Marcus 268

42 Tracking down the Tunnel People 2 Poncho Getulio Estoban Hugo José Greg Tito Dee Henry Ralph 274

43 An Acceptable Rate 276

44 'Tis What It Is 278

Appendix: Joe's Letter to the Amtrak Police 281

Endnotes 283

Works Cited 297

Acknowledgements 303

About the Author 305

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