The Tunnel - Morton, Margaret - Yale University Press
Art and Architecture

The Tunnel

The Underground Homeless of New York City

  • Margaret Morton
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Out of Print.

One of the oldest surviving homeless communities in New York City has been hidden from public view in an underground train tunnel for over twenty years. Residents dwell in continual darkness along the two-and-one-half mile stretch, which is penetrated only by shafts of light angling through air vents. The residents who have been there longest live alongside the tracks in cinder block bunkers originally used by railroad personnel. Other residents are hidden high above the tracks in recessed niches that are accessible only by a precarious climb. More recent tunnel dwellers have built free-standing structures in the dark alcoves of the tunnel or perched themselves on concrete ledges.

This book, the first in a group of three books documenting the lives and living spaces of New York City's homeless population, is narrated entirely by tunnel residents. Margaret Morton's photographs combine with four years of audiotaped oral histories to create a unique archive of extraordinary individuals living in an extraordinary social, political, and economic condition.

We meet John, who wandered into the tunnel searching for a safe place to sleep after being attacked on a park bench. "So I kept walking to the back and found this house and started to clean it and fix it up," he says. "They were there for the workers. I had to walk around the street at night to look for things that I want to put into it. And sometimes I had to carry it ten to fifteen blocks just to get it down." John stayed for twenty years, taking into his care fifteen abandoned cats and three stray dogs.

And there is Bernard, who entered the tunnel in 1985. He supports himself collecting cans in the early morning hours for redemption at a recycling center. Known as "The Lord of the Tunnel," Bernard became the spokesperson for the tunnel residents when they were threatened with eviction in 1991. "I have no regrets.. . . This existence has done so much for me. It's taken me from the vanity. . . . People think it's about laying back and being shiftless out here and it's not. A day to day existence can be most intense."

With sensitivity and compassion, this book exposes the hopes, fears, and pride of individuals under duress. Reading it is an unforgettable experience.

Margaret Morton, a photographer who lives in New York City, is associate professor of art at The Cooper Union. She is co-author of Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives.