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Manhattan’s Mysterious Mole People

Manhattan is a city of many distinct levels. Just from looking at its magnificent skyline, this can be easily discerned. The rich and powerful live in penthouses atop buildings that stretch far into the sky. Conversely, down on the ground, the workers of the city can be seen every day, traversing the streets on foot, by bus, by taxi, or covering distance beneath those streets while riding below ground on Manhattan’s vaunted subway system.

But there is another level to Manhattan, one that most people never see, and that many believe is

simply a story, a figment of the imagination. But this level is all too real. It is dark, dismal, and full of sights and stories that would shake the average person to the core. This hidden and ignored level of the city functions with its own rules. It lays deep beneath the city streets, where most ordinary people will never venture in their entire lives. This is the world of the Mole People.

The thought of people or creatures living underground and posing a threat to those who live normal lives on the surface is not new to our popular culture. From the Morlocks of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine to countless sci-fi pulp tales, stories of such people have existed for years. In New York, fiction meets reality somewhere deep beneath the surface of Manhattan.

For many decades, rumors have persisted that thousands of homeless people have descended below the streets of New York and have found their way into the many abandoned train tunnels that lay buried and forgotten beneath the always-evolving metropolis. Here the destitute, the addicted, and the otherwise forgotten have gathered, simultaneously shunning the street level society that rejected them while forming societies of their own, based on their own rules and values. They build homes, steal electricity, tap into water pipes, and create dwellings for themselves that are far more elaborate than anything they could create on the streets.

The myths concerning these people grew to epic proportions over the years. Some were said to never emerge from the underground, and that years without sunlight had affected their physical appearance to the point that they looked more like bug-eyed monsters than men. It was whispered that children were being born into these underground societies, and that some kids lived their entire lives in subterranean cities, never once in their lives coming up to the surface. The Mole People were rumored to hate “surface dwellers,” as they called them, with a fiery passion, and would kill any who dared enter their dwellings. More audacious versions of this legend claimed that Mole People wouldn’t simply kill surface dwellers they found, but would eat them. Just as terrifying was the rumor that people would be kidnapped by vindictive Mole People and would be brought underground, never to be seen or heard from again. The Mole People of myth were considered to be some sort of sub-human species living in the train tunnels and sewers of Manhattan.

As these unbelievable rumors grew to epic proportions, it became assumed that the stories of the Mole People were simply urban legends, with no more basis in reality to them than tales of alligators in the same sewers, or those of disappearing kidneys. Average New Yorkers dismissed the stories as tall tales without a second thought. However, in the early 1990s it came to light that the rumor of the Mole People, which seemed far too outlandish to be true, was actually an all too real, and all too grim, part of the reality of life in Manhattan.

In 1993, journalist Jennifer Toth released her landmark book The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City. Toth had heard the sensational rumors regarding the Mole People and decided to track down the truth behind the existence, or non-existence, of these legends. She spent a year networking with the city’s homeless and exploring the tunnels beneath Manhattan

herself. Her findings are truly shocking, and illuminated an aspect of the homeless problem in New York that many had denied, ignored, or thought of as fiction.

Toth didn’t happen upon any mutated beings or inhuman creatures during her forays into New York’s abandoned rail tunnels. She did, however, find that there were close to 5,000 people who lived in dwellings built in these tunnels. Some were loners—mentally ill, drug addicted, alcoholics, or those who shunned human contact. Incredibly, there were also organized groups of homeless who banded together to form cohesive, small societal units, some with membership above 200 people. Toth encountered many different types of Mole People who stuck together in the tunnels: bands of runaways, loose-knit groups who stayed close to each other for safety, and other groups that lived communally and treated each other as family. Most stayed in tunnels beneath Grand Central Station, one of the busiest commuter junctions in all of New York.

Many of these groups had their own social structures in place. For example, some groups had designated “runners,” whose responsibility it was to go to the surface to forage for food and medicines. Some groups had created intricate systems of tapping on pipes in order to communicate with each other over distances in the darkness of the underground. Many were underground because of drug addictions or mental imbalances. Some were violent and hoarded weapons. Others ate rats in front of the author. Most didn’t trust the shelter system New York City had in place. The amount of thievery, assault, and rape that happened in the shelters made them worse places to reside, in these people’s opinions, than the tunnels. They would much rather fend for themselves on their own terms, underground.

Not all of those Toth encountered were looking for makeshift families or just to be left alone. Her book also chronicles her run-ins with criminal gangs who make their headquarters in the tunnels, graffiti artists who make the tunnels their canvas, and perhaps most chillingly, a charismatic Mole Person referred to as “Satan” or “The Dark Angel” by other Mole People, who fear him and his supposed supernatural powers. Toth’s book exposed the reality and extent of the Mole People’s lives, and caused many efforts at removing people from the tunnels and into shelters. Up until the publication of her book (highly recommended for anyone interested in the plight of the Mole People), the city government and the MTA had denied the existence of the Mole People, writing it off as a mere story, and attempted to ignore the problem teeming beneath them. Once the issue was brought to the surface, attempts were made to bring the people to the surface as well.

Most reports say that there are far fewer Mole People today than the 5,000 estimated in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, while many Mole People have been cleared out of the tunnels, a substantial number of homeless people still live in enclaves buried deep beneath the surface of Manhattan. Margaret Morton’s book The Tunnel, published in 1995, combined words and stunning photographs chronicling the lives of Mole People. Marc Singer’s shocking 2000 documentary Dark Days chronicles the daily lives of a group of tunnel dwellers who lived in an abandoned Amtrak tunnel. Not only were the tunnel residents the subjects of the documentary, they were the crew—Singer lived in the tunnel beneath Penn Station for close to two years, filming his tunnel-mates, who also built equipment for the shoot, helped rout electricity to the tunnel, served as cameramen, lighting technicians, sound operators, and in other capacities for the film. The film won accolades at the Sundance film festival, and brought loads of attention to the living conditions of New York’s homeless. The film brought to life and committed to film both the horrid conditions the Mole People suffer as well as the sense of community they are able to develop in spite of it all.

Mole People were in the news as recently as June 2004, when the Daily News ran a headline entitled “Cop’s Shot Kills ‘Mole Man’.” Their story told of a man who was beaten and robbed on a subway platform. Police trailed his assailant into a subway tunnel, at which point he lunged at them while shouting the words “Shoot me!” They shot him once in the chest. He died soon after. He was covered in soot and was identified as a homeless man who resided in an abandoned tunnel in the area.

The Mole People are legendary, but they are no urban legend. They are a group of people living in unthinkable circumstances for a variety of extreme, unfortunate reasons. The next time you visit Manhattan, or see its skyline from afar, remember that there is far more than anyone bargained for lurking deep beneath its surface. The next time you walk on the city’s streets, think of the unseen, the unheard, and the unknown residents who are living their lives in the dark recesses below you.

You can read more about New York’s many other Fabled People and Places is Weird New York.

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