The communities that they form are tribes, not societies. There is a general frame of organization, a leadership, but no government in the real sense. If there is a hierarchical scale of leadership, most likely it is not set as in modern societies. But some facts described by Toth are very much similar to a society. For example, Toth describes one enclave under Grand Central with showers using hot water from a leaky stream pipe, with cooking and laundry facilities, and even an exercise room. Each person has its own role in the community, some go outside to gather food and such, and other stay underground and cook, do laundry, nurture children and such. This organization resemblances very much with a tribe, as it has far too few members and it has few of the attributes of a society. Most of these people live like animals, though. As described in many passages in the book, the mole people lost many parts of their human side and their behavior is more on the instinctual than on the rational side.
Although most of the people living in tunnels are alcoholic, addicted to drugs, or mentally ill, some of them are intelligent and few of them even have a college degree. Some of these people have jobs, or at least at one point they had a regularly paid job. Yet, few of these people actually leave the tunnels and begin having a normal life. Toth presents the case of a person that lived 12 years in the tunnels, so there is little hope for a better future of these people. The Mole People is a fascinating book that reveals one of New Yorks most famous urban legends, but at times the writer seems to become too captivated by the story and less involved in an objective analysis.
At times, some of the stories told by the mole people seem to be at least partially invented and the author makes no effort to distinguish between imagination and reality.
The best name for the tunnel dwellers is that of mole people, because this label gathers all the aspects of their life. A term like modern foragers would be appropriate to some extent, but it does not cover all the realities of life underground. The mole people refers, as told by the book, to the tunnel dwellers that go outside the tunnel in search for food, able to do anything for money and for survival. Most of these people are capable of crime in order to get drugs and alcohol.
The main conclusion of the book is that there is an underground world that resembles in some aspects to a society, a world of the outlawed, poor and mentally ill. This is not a society in the real sense, even if Toth writes that she met an elected “mayor,” and many of the stories in the book are not convincing enough. Still, there is no doubt that Toth managed to capture the essence of the other life going on beneath NYC, a life of poverty and drugs, of violence and crime.
The author was brave in trying to get to the myth of underground cities and see which part was true and to what extent. She failed in separating fiction and myth from reality, a reality that she could prove in a more analytical way. Even so, The Mole People is a remarkable attempt to reveal the mysteries beneath NYC.
Toth, Jennifer, The Mole People: Life in the tunnels beneath New York.