Erin's Reviews > The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City

The Mole People by Jennifer Toth
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's review
Dec 18, 2007

liked it

Not very well-written, but I always say that about journalistic style (Hey journalism people: if even analytic philosophers can learn how to write well, why can't you? Cue defensive references to New Yorker and Harpers' journalists, to which I say, "Duh"). Oh, back to the book: the mole people are interesting, but don't expect Ms. Toth to reveal much about them that you don't already know, or can imagine. She was very naive when she was doing her research (entering the tunnels alone, taking the promises and proclamations of drug addicts at face value, placing her safety in the hands of people she knew were killers) and for anyone who has worked with the homeless and with substance abusers, or who has lived in the city longer than a year, none of what she "finds" is a revelation, except for the large community under Grand Central with children, a mayor, and a nurse. (Also, I found it downright amusing when she had to explain what "dissing" is, as well as ecstasy [a hallucinogenic drug]). But I can't really fault Toth for her naivete; no person can help where they are raised, and if the author found it difficult to understand urban slang, or lacked the basic survival skills your average urban 10 year old has, then at least her wide-eyed shock at what she sees in the tunnels provides a clear perspective on the living conditions of the homeless in NYC. While pretty much everything she encounters is to be expected, her childlike awe demands that the reader ask why it is that we are so jaded, specifically why it is that we simply assume that these people are too far removed from "surface society" to be rehabilitated. Why do we simply shrug at their hopelessness? It's a good question to ask, and had Ms. Toth been able to answer it, this book would have been far more interesting. As it is, her research came to an abrupt and decisive halt, for reasons you will have to read the book to find out, and she left NYC. I wonder if Ms. Toth were to return to the tunnels now, 15 years later, would she have something substantial to say?
There is also a lot of debate about some of the communities Ms. Toth describes in the book, about whether or not they exist, about the locations of the tunnels, about the children living underground. Here is a link to a staunch critic:

I'll say only this: I used to work up at 181st street in Manhattan, and when you get off of the 1 train there, you have to take an elevator to street level, because the station platform is about 13 stories below ground (I'd have to look up the exact number). The bedrock of most of Manhattan is granite, the hardest rock there is, meaning that you can dig many, many layers below street level. I also used to work in the parks, and if you think that the homeless aren't capable of seeking out any crevice or tunnel or natural cave to live in and create a home or small community, then you are mistaken. I can vouch for the existence of "secret" tunnels underneath Manhattan (not that I ever got to go in any, I just know where a couple of the entrances are). I'm tempted to think that Ms. Toth inaccurately described the locations of tunnel entrances in order to keep her readers out. But whatever, the purported existence of underground communities is not what interests me. I'll leave that debate to you all.

Update: I work in a university library, and I got the pleasure of checking a book out to Jennifer Toth the other day. Yeah for me! But it still wasn't as cool as when Arthur Danto came in.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Adrianna Good review, I think you described my exact sentiments. My main issue was that I just did not learn anything new about these "mole people." I never got a good description of the stations or tunnels and I've lived in Manhattan long enough to know MTA pretty well. I was very bothered by the fact that she wasn't creating a clear image of these locations.

Eric_W Excellent and informative review. I especially appreciated the link to the abandoned stations website. Fascinating stuff.

message 3: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer i am needing some input to help a student from someone who has read this book. if you have a minute, please email me at


Erin I didn't know anyone had commented on this, but I'm glad others were frustrated with this book. I would venture to say that the mole people as we have always thought of them are a myth. I've had people tell me that there are groups of people who live so far underground that they never come to the surface and have webbed feet! It's ridiculous, but that is the myth, and that is what New Yorkers want addressed in a book entitled The Mole People, not the revelation of what we already know, that homeless people live in the tunnels.
Also, I just realized how creepy is my assertion that there are secret tunnels in Manhattan. By secret, I mean simply that they are used by city and government agencies to do things that are not public knowledge. I once climbed on someone's shoulders to see into the ventilation holes in the medieval-looking entrance to a tunnel and saw a very long, high-ceilinged hallway that went straight into the face of a cliff. It would be creepy if I weren't sure that the secrets housed in there were fairly tame. But it is interesting that we worked in that park and had no idea what went on there, nor had we ever seen anyone use the entrance.
And finally, I went back to the link above and see that the author claims that there are no natural caves in Manhattan, This is incorrect. The natural caves may not be very large, but they exist and are certainly inhabited.

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