Hidden on the second floor of an East Harlem sanitation garage lies one of New York City’s most fascinating art galleries. This carefully curated assortment of oddities is not the work of any acclaimed art collector though. Instead, this breath-taking gallery collection of odds and ends, nicknamed “The Treasures in the Trash Museum,” was compiled by a sanitation worker over the course of 33 years on the job. In other words, this is a museum full of trash.
That should be taken more as a matter of fact statement than a summation of the gallery’s quality though. Located on 99th street between First and Second Avenue, “The Treasures in the Trash Museum” began as a growing collection of carefully collected articles of trash that has been arranged in the form of an art gallery by a sanitation worker named Nelson Molina. Although sanitation workers are normally forbidden from confiscating trash on the job, the collection eventually got the okay from the department hierarchy and co-workers alike, not to mention coverage in the New York Times. Since then, the second floor of the garage has been deemed unsuitable to support the weight of garbage trucks and the collection has proliferated as a result.
The garbage that Molina uses for the gallery is comprised of things that he collects throughout his daily NYSD route from East 96 to 106th street between First and Fifth Avenues. Although the sheer amount of objects that comprise the collection may initially look overwhelming, Molinas is very careful to display the objects according to size, theme, and function. With an acute eye, Molinas’ gallery can almost be seen as a kind of quilt comprised of the junk that makes up the cultural fabric of the city itself. The gallery features articles of trash from every walk of life, including toys, ceramics, chairs, cameras, memorabilia, vacuum cleaners, and many others.
Recently, Molinas created one of several installations throughout the gallery by organizing a wall of posters and maps of Central Park featuring quotes from the East Village artist De La Vega. The recurring quote featured in this installation says “Become Your Dream,” one of the many sayings that La Vega would write on garbage around the city as part of his art. Among many other things, the museum also features a Star of David commemorating a man who lost his life on 9/11 which was forged from the metal of the World Trade Center.
Molinas says that his passion for picking began as far back as when he was a child growing up in the Jefferson Housing Projects during the 1960s. Initially, his picking was discreet when he began working for the Sanitation Department. But ever since the second floor of the garage, which is called MANEAST 11, was closed 7 years ago, he was free to begin publicly expanding his collection.
MANEAST 11 is still a fully operational garage for the Sanitation Department though and it is not open to the public. There are also many safety hazards involved in visiting the second floor space and access to “The Treasures in the Trash Museum” is only possible by gaining authorization from the NYSD themselves. For the sanitation workers themselves though, Molinas’ gallery is always open. And even as Molinas will continue to expand the space, this urban art sanctuary will always be their little secret.
Open House New York will be offering a tour of this gallery in this fall’s OHNY Weekend. If you are interested in finding out more about New York City’s hidden museums and art galleries, check out our list of 10 off-the-radar museum in the city.
Learn more about the artistic integrity of household waste by contacting the author @DouglasCapraro