02/22/2012 08:40 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2012

An Underworld Below Your Subway Seat

Would you believe me if I told you that there are hundreds of people living below New York City? The idea of mole people is often depicted as mythical in pop culture (even comical at times, with characters like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stationed below the city) but they are a people as far from fantasy as can be. Neither is this a new concept -- since the early 1990's, major exposure of the lives of homeless people making a world for themselves below the New York subway system has caught the attention of the public, but there have been records to show that people lived below the subways way before that. The early 1990's were just the pinnacle for subway-dwelling. In 1993, the country endured a financial recession, forcing many new people to the streets of New York. It was during this time that hundreds if not thousands of people cleverly made their homes beneath the subway. However, in 1996, when the Amtrak train line was built, most of these people were kicked out by the city and homeless organizations offered some of them alternative housing. Yet many of the so-called mole people living below the streets didn't associate themselves with the idea of homelessness. They had created a whole subculture for themselves below New York, both literally and figuratively. They had makeshift houses, neighbors, and even sustained families.

In 2000, a documentary called Dark Days, filmed by Mark Singer, was released. Mark is from London, but after moving to New York in the 1990's and seeing the degradation of our homeless population and meeting many who lived on the streets, he decided the make a film about it. The film was incredibly beautiful yet eerie, as it was filmed solely in black and white. Never before have I seen something which so genuinely humanizes our homeless population, depicting a real networked community.

Still today, many thrive below our subway system. On February 6, 2012, I read an article in the New York Times by Christine Haughney entitled "The Fiery End to a Life Lived Beneath the City," about a man named Anthony Horton who died in a fire in his underground home. His body was found deep in the subway station by the F Line, just north of 63rd and Lexington, which was shocking to me to think that he was just a mile from my own home. After his death, firefighters uncovered all of this art that Horton had been making during his lifetime. He was even the co-author of a novel called "Pitch Black," written about his experiences underground. The artwork in his graphic novel was so interesting and had such a Basquiat quality to them. In the novel, Horton gave advice like "Remember, anything you need can be found in the garbage" and "With all the juice down there, there should be electricity for everyone." This wasn't some illiterate substance abuser. Horton, like many of his underground mates, makes up a group of intelligent people who call the tracks home, a life without the judgment from those above ground.

In AP History this year, we learned all about the Gilded Age -- the huge disparity between the wealthy robber barons who owned the railroad companies and the poor people who actually built them that was apparent during the late 1800's. But I am certain that we are still very much in a Gilded Age when I think about the image of myself heading on the subway to some party and only few feet below me as I ride, hundreds of people struggling to simply survive. My family gives to organizations that help homeless people receive food, but, and I know this makes me sound incredibly snobby, when I actually encounter a homeless person on the street or on the subway, so often I turn away, unsure if their intentions are earnest. But recently, I have become obsessed with learning about the people below our city, and it's really hard for me now not to think about it when I ride the subway. To say we must all help this people isn't exactly an easy fix to the problem. Many of the subway's homeless population tried living above ground for a while with friends that they had made and found life below ground much easier. What I do think though is that the homeless population in our city is simply not represented enough if at all. Our city has so many abandoned subway stations that could be turned into legal and safe spaces for these people to live that I see no reason why they've stayed closed and out of use for so many years. I hope the next time you take the subway you'll think about what's going on below you.