A tour of underground New York City


They don't build cities like they used to—which is, to say, by simply backfilling and constructing on top of older architecture, leaving behind a layered time machine just ripe for adventure. The idea that some very old cities, like Rome, are three stories taller than they originally were—that the ground you walk on today is not really, precisely, the ground at all—is still completely mind-blowing to me. Even after I've been below, and seen the buildings-built-atop-buildings with my own eyes.

That's why I love stories like this one from NPR, where professional explorer Erling Kagge accompanies amateur adventurer Steve Duncan on a 25-mile journey through the sewers of New York City. It's no Golden Palace of Nero, but there are some little historical thrills. The photo above, for instance, taken by Duncan, which shows THE canal for which Canal Street was named. Bricked over in 1812—you can see the line between the different stages of brickwork—it's now a sewer. And a clogged one, at that.

The story even includes a short interview with one of the so-called Mole People—homeless people who have figured out how to live more comfortably below ground than on the street.

One of them, Brooklyn, lives in an "igloo," as she put it -- a sort of dump beneath the tracks, which were lined with mural after mural of intense, weird graffiti.

"What do you think people above ground do wrong in life?" Kagge asked her.

"It's called appreciate what you got," Brooklyn said. "And hold on to it. And don't lose it. I don't know why people are miserable -- they got everything that I don't have. And I'm happier than them."

Soon, she burst into Sister Sledge's "We Are Family."

Via Christopher Ryan


  1. Who knows what lies underneath the surface of that canal, but the top layer, at least, seems to be composed of empty water bottles. Doesn’t exactly go well with that nice old brick.

    I have heard legends of the so-called “mole people” for years and years, but as far as I know no one’s ever found evidence of the quote-endquote “real” mole people–those that live their entire lives underground, or at most only come out at night. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that some people have actually done so–there are people in Chinatown, for example, who have lived there for their entire lives, have never set foot outside of it, and don’t speak English–but the only mole people that I’ve ever read about anyone meeting are single homeless people or small groups that have taken shelter in some of the more accessible levels.

  2. tl;dr. Instead, I just mentally replayed snippets from Futurama episodes featuring sewer mutants and making the descent from New New York to roam underground through Old New York.

  3. I listened to this yesterday and had the distinct impression ‘Brooklyn’ was good and drunk at the time of her interview.

  4. @ Halloween Jack… check out the documentary “Dark Days” if you want to see the mole people.

  5. “I don’t know why people are miserable — they got everything that I don’t have. And I’m happier than them.”

    As the old saying goes; “money can’t buy you happiness”.

  6. Last March I had the chance to see a little of underground New York myself, on Obscura Day. There’s a tour that runs through an abandoned railway tunnel beneath Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. It’s led by the guy who rediscovered it long after its abandonment, and he shares the tale of the tunnel and how it came to be abandoned (as well as some of the rumors surrounding it). It’s pretty neat.

    Not my pics (I neglected to bring a camera, it seems), but here’s some flickr photos of the event:


    Are more if you search for Obscura Day on flickr and poke around.

    1. Talia, that Atlantic Avenue tunnel is 100% not the same thing as these other tunnels. The Atlantic Avenue tunnel was sealed for decades and only discovered when Bob Diamond discovered it back in 1980. Nobody ever lived in it. It was just sealed up and forgotten.

      These other tunnels that the homeless live in… That’s something else entirely. Lots of places like that exist.

      Heck, I went to Brooklyn College and whenever I went into the steam tunnels beneath the campus I would explore and find signs of life.

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