Wednesday, June 30, 1999

mole people reveal new york's great divide

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article was distributed by Panos in June 1996).

Deep below the towering apartment blocks of Manhattan, the crime-ridden streets of New York City conceal a secret few want to know -- the mole people.

They are the battered and bruised of this bustling megalopolis -- a thousand-odd people pushed by poverty and violence into the subway tunnels that criss-cross the financial capital of the world. Living in dark, unventilated and rat-infested burrows, the so-called mole people of New York City emerge only to grab at half-empty plates of food thrown out by restaurants or to collect water from petrol stations, drink from fire-hydrants and sell tin cans at five cents apiece.

Unknown to the world above, they reveal another side of development in the rich cities of the North -- a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

While income disparity has been historically high in Manhattan, it widened in the 1990s. In 1990, New York City ranked fifth among U.S. cities with large income gaps, compared to 11th place in 1980.

The top fifth of the households in the city currently make s 32 times more money than the bottom fifth of the population.

"The tunnel people resist relocation because they went underground very purposefully," says Mike Harris, a spokesperson of the Coalition for the Homeless, an organization that is trying to rehabilitate the underground people.

A section of the homeless first took refuge in the tunnels in the 1980s when New York's shelters for the homeless became "horrid," says Harris. "Not only were they homeless, but they were forced into shelters that were extremely violent, drug-ridden and crazy."

In 1994, America's housing chief went down the tunnels to take a look. He described what he saw: "People covered in soot, scratching their bodies from dust and lice, the air clammy, the trains, the fumes...its the England of Dickens or worse."

Equally, it is a world set apart from other miseries of life above ground. Just as there are drug-addicts, alcoholics and criminals on the run among the tunnel people, there are those who come from broken homes, have been cast out by a competitive society or simply have nowhere else to go.

To them, the smell of excrement, the bitter cold of the winter and even the company of rodents is a preferred existence. "Some of them have been down there so long that they are afraid to come out into the real world," says Harris.

According to him, promised housing for the tunnel people in the past never materialized. But things did move in 1994, when the federal government gave $8.7 million to non-profit organizations to relocate the tunnel people. This led a decrease, but not an elimination of the problem.

Just last week, Harris went down to the tunnel to talk to 15 new people who had just moved in. "I asked one why he wanted to live down there. He turned around and asked me why I live where I do.

I answered saying its cheap and safe. He retorted that he lived in the tunnels for the same reasons."

Like in any developing country of the South, in New York widespread budget cuts invariably strike first at the root of social investment. "New York City plans budget savings on the basis of how many people they can get thrown out of welfare," says Jean Bergman, a senior policy analyst at Housing Works, a non-profit organization that houses the homeless.

Of the city's population of 7.3 million, twenty percent live below the poverty line. But in December 1994, the city's Republican mayor Rudolph Guiliani unveiled a program calling for large cuts in health and benefit programs: $900 million in reduction in medical aid and $300 million in reduction on public assistance. "Whatever a third world urban economy is, New York is it," says Bergman. "Like urban centers of the third world, this city has reached the pinnacle of possesses the international border between the rich and the poor."

The tunnel or mole people are at one end of the debate over the problem of exclusion in many Northern cities.

"What New York has which Lagos and say Mexico City don't have is financial control," says Douglas Massey, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and President of the Population Association of America.

"There are unbelievably rich and poor people in both places, but the absolute amount of wealth in New York is much more which makes the disparity really stark," Massey added.

He points to problems associated with globalization in dealing with habitat issues.

With technological advancement leading to globalized production, people were increasingly inhabiting a similar world. Immigration into the developing world like in New York and the movement of factories to developing countries pointed to a "new era of global exploitation of natural resources and labor."

"The capitalist economic system is the only system left, and that affects life in Lagos as well as in New York," he added.

According to Stan Bernstein, a senior adviser at the United Nations Population Fund, some of the issues of habitat that are being addressed globally are also being actively addressed in the political arena in New York.

"There has to be serious attention paid to basic social services, health, education and women's empowerment," Bernstein said. "Who is the best provider of these services varies in different contexts? The role of government is to create enabling environments to ensure that these services are provided."

(PANOS, with offices in London, Paris and Washington, D.C., is an information organization that works with media and NGOs in highlighting development issues that are misunderstood and underreported.)