Friday, 22 October 2010

Tunnel People – Living underground in Manhattan

This week I took my journalism students to a fascinating and thought-provoking talk by award winning photojournalist and author Teun Voeten at the Frontline Club, the media club near London’s Paddington. 

Dutch photographer and cultural anthropologist, Voeten has covered conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza for Vanity Fair, Newsweek, The New Yorker, and National Geographic, among others, as well as for organizations such as the International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations.

In the mid-nineties however, he took a break from war reporting. For five months he lived, slept and worked in a tunnel underneath Manhattan's posh Upper West Side. He lived alongside an eclectic mix of outsiders: Vietnam veterans, hippies, crack addicts, Cuban refugees, convicted killers, computer programmers, philosophical recluses and criminal runaways.

His book on this community, Tunnel People, published in the Netherlands in 1996, describes their daily work, problems and pleasures with humor and compassion. It also tries to reconstruct people’s past and describe how they became homeless.

The tunnel people were evicted in 1996, but Amtrak and homeless organizations offered them alternative housing. Some succeeded in starting again above ground, while others failed. In his 2010 updated version of Tunnel People, Voeten tracks down the original tunnel dwellers and describes what has happened in the thirteen years since they left the tunnels. 

The book is written both as a journalist and anthropologist with the insight of someone who has actually lived there among the rats, collected cans and firewood and scavenged for food. It is an honest, direct and unsentimental account of the mean, grimy misery underground. Yet, in many ways, the tunnel people were doing better than the homeless people above ground. As Voeten points out, they have created their own environment, showing a level of self-confidence and planning beyond the day-to-day that is rare among street people. In fact many don’t even consider themselves homeless.

The book makes you think of the thousands of homeless above ground – in full view, yet still invisible. Since the first version of Tunnel People, there has been a huge increase in the number of the homeless, especially families, as the economic crisis has caused lay-offs and foreclosures on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.  It is not only the poor who have been pushed over the edge – and still are – but also the middle classes. Voeten hopes his book will shed some light on the complex problem of homelessness.

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