Unveiling the hidden lives beneath New York City's streets

In "Life Underground: Encounters with People Below the Streets of New York," Williams delves into the lives of individuals residing in once-abandoned spaces, particularly a railway tunnel on the Upper West Side.

Edric Robinson

Feb 27, 2024, 12:32 AM

Updated 55 days ago

Share:

A new book by sociologist Terry Williams is shining a light on a significant but often overlooked community living underground in New York City.
In "Life Underground: Encounters with People Below the Streets of New York," Williams delves into the lives of individuals residing in once-abandoned spaces, particularly a railway tunnel on the Upper West Side.
“All of this space we’re driving now, people were living underneath here,” said Williams while driving uptown along the West Side Highway near 95th Street.
“It really started in 1989/1990 when I discovered the city underground was rife with information about people,” he continued.
Delving into their stories, Williams shares insights from his encounters with individuals like Bernard Isaac, known as the "Lord of the Tunnel," who served as the entry point into this subterranean network. The book is dedicated to Bernard Isaac.
"He was in essence an underground philosopher, and I was intrigued by his intelligence," Williams explains.
Through a 20-year relationship with Isaac and others, Williams gained insights into the lives of tunnel dwellers, often meeting them at entrances like side gates to tunnels along Riverside Park. He distributed journals and recorders to help them document their dreams.
“They all have a story to tell. Most of that was a story of despair, separation, broken marriages, lost jobs,” said Williams.
In 1996, the city began clearing out these tunnels and offering housing vouchers. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 240 vouchers with services were provided to people in train tunnels through HPD.
“That was their approach because of the Amtrak train. Bernard was one of the people who were given vouchers to pass out to people underground, he of course got a voucher, he passed out to others. Some took the vouchers, others didn’t,” said Williams.
Though that community was cleared from tunnels, Williams says there are others still living underground in other parts of the city today. He challenges media sensationalism and is advocating for organizations like Grand Central Neighborhood that provide resources and support to those who need it.
As Williams' book uncovers the hidden lives beneath New York City's streets, he says it serves as a powerful call to action to address the challenges faced by a segment of the population.
"It's about caring and not seeing people as disposable," Williams concludes, urging the government and others to recognize and address the needs of these marginalized communities.


More from News 12