14 February, 2016
Summary of The Tunnel (on p.57)
The Tunnel by Margaret Morton is a part of “The Architecture of Despair” and ongoing photographic documentation by Morton of the lives of the homeless in New York City and how they survive and make their living. This entry in this project centers specifically on the homeless community that occupies the abandoned Amtrak tunnel that stretches from 72nd street to 123rd street from Riverside Park to the Hudson River. Morton starts off describing the history of this tunnel and the land it occupies, saying “The mud flats along the Hudson River were occupied by squatters when the Hudson River Railroad arrived in the mid-1800s. (Morton, ix)” Once the railroad was built, the area became a shanty town that fed on the garbage dumped there by the Sanitation Department. In 1934, in order to gentrify the mud flats into a stylish strip for residents of the nearby apartments, the garbage dumping was ceased and the railroad tracks were covered with a concrete tunnel to conceal “the dirt of the dense black smoke of the diesel engines and the odor of carloads of pigs and cattle en route to the slaughter house (Morton, ix)”. The tunnel was outfitted with concrete structures for use by railroad personnel. Once shipping methods had advanced to the point of making rail shipping no longer viable, the tunnel was largely abandoned and occupied once again by a community of homeless people who took shelter there.
The text is organized by chapters labeled with different areas of the tunnel,
which are then broken down into sections which recount the stories of the residents of those areas. In the first chapter “The north gate”, the reader is introduced to the most recurrent character, Bernard Monte Isaac. Nearly every subsequent interviewee is a friend or acquaintance of Bernard and most were invited to live in the tunnels by Bernard himself. In the acknowledgements, Morton thanks Bernard for acting as her guide throughout the length of the tunnel between 1991 and 1995 while she was compiling pictures and interviews for this book. Bernard and some of the other residents lived in the concrete structures built for railroad employees and have cleaned them out and intricately decorated their own personal spaces to make them more of a home. There is also plenty of graffiti, with some of the pieces being random and haphazard and others being full murals by recognized artists that are subsequently named and credited in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. There are many common themes among the stories, especially when discussing different ways of surviving in the tunnels. Nearly everyone talks about having to collect cans to return to stores, going to soup kitchens, churches and shelters for food and going up to the surface to scavenge wood out of dumpsters for fuel to keep warm during the winter months. This a very fascinating piece of literature chronicling a piece of New York culture that is literally and figuratively underground. This book would be useful to anyone looking to further research the built environment and how it creates little enclave communities like this one that almost exist in their own separate worlds from the rest of society.