The New York City subway opened in the fall of 1904. The first track was a turnaround loop beneath City Hall, designed to alleviate overcrowding in the Lower East Side – the commercial center of Manhattan. In the following years, the subway expanded. Workers digging tunnels on the Upper West Side are said to have found a perfectly preserved ten-thousand-year-old forest standing under the streets of New York, presumably driven into the underground cavern by a glacier during the last Ice Age.
In the aftermath of World War I, America became the world’s leading industrial superpower, and New York City was its pulse. The population of Manhattan quickly outgrew the island’s 31 square acres. For decades, the city continued to expand – into the sky, and under the ground.
By the early 1980s, New York’s homeless were seeking shelter in abandoned subway tunnels. Some transit authorities speculated (off the record) that these refugees numbered in the thousands, forming a city beneath the city. They told stories of “mole people,” who tapped into underground power lines and water mains, and built an exclusive society far from the world above.
Official reactions were muted throughout the decade, but the stories of mole people began to spread. In 1990, police raided the tunnels and removed more than 4,000 homeless people. Those who remained were driven deeper underground.
In 1993, journalist Jennifer Toth ventured into the tunnels to get firsthand stories from those who lived below. When she asked one of the mole people how he could live underground, he asked her how she could live in the world above: “How can you live in a society like that? The rules don’t make sense. They’re not based on human needs or caring. The laws and the rules, and what they call morals, are logical and warped. They are based on money, not on right or wrong. They might as well have come from a computer. No one really cares up there. Down here this is basic survival. We make our own laws. Our laws are based on what we feel, not preconceived notions of morality. We call it the ‘human morality.’ That’s what we live by.”
A few years later, aspiring filmmaker Marc Singer took up residence among the mole people. He brought his camera with him...
Music by DJ Shadow.