Velvet Underground

Anyone who has visited the Catacombs of Rome or Alexandria’s necropolis would associate underground dwelling with death. The sight of such a subterranean ossuary may have caused many a sleepless night, with the eerie sight of human skulls accentuating the claustrophobic darkness.

Yet in many of the world’s biggest metropolises, there are communities of people who choose to live underground, either because they cannot afford to live otherwise, or to escape the demands of society and the tentacles of law. The most famous of these urban myths surrounds the plight of the so-called “mole people” living in the subway and utility tunnels below New York City. Ever since Jennifer Toth’s somewhat fantastic book made its appearance, there have been spirited debates over the facts presented and the size and scale of these communities.

Surface world pedestrians in most major cities seldom realise the sheer variety of activities in progress below the ground: beside the ubiquitous sewers and subway tunnels, gas, telephone and electrical lines, there are often canals and quarries, crypts and bank vaults, wine-cellars and surreptitious night-clubs. One of the greatest subterranean surprises is a perfectly preserved City Hall subway station in Manhattan-- inaugurated in 1904, this unusually elegant station with arches, skylights and brass chandeliers, was sealed in 1945 after the steep curve was deemed unsafe for longer carriages.

National Geographic drew international attention to "cataphiles" (catacomb-lovers) when it featured the catacombs of Paris on its cover in February 2011. Prohibition and "catacops" (catacomb-police) have not deterred the adventurous from entering quarries through forgotten doorways and find their way to the catacombs through roads less travelled by— indeed a group of young men recently completed a perilous 22-kilometre trek from the southern to the northern edge of the Left Bank, a three-day troglodytic adventure that ended through a manhole cover outside a fashionable cafĂ©, shocking its sidewalk patrons.

One only needs to turn to the year 802,701 AD to see how belief in the anti-social (rather than the unsocial) inhabiting the underworld has perpetuated. In H G Wells'  science-fiction novel, The Time Machine, mankind has evolved into two distinct species in this distant future— uncurious humans and ape-like Morlocks. Although Wells had become a Darwinian atheist in adulthood, true to the original Christian concept of Hell, he housed the murderous Morlocks in the depths of the underground.


Behold! Human beings living in an underground den. Like ourselves, they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave.

Plato, The Republic