For over thirty years, an East Harlem sanitation garage has hosted a gallery filled with over 50,000 pieces of found objects from the city’s trash – but the collection is some danger. On a recent visit, a most coveted reservation during Open House New York Weekend since the gallery is not normally open to the public, we met with the “curator” of the initiative, Nelson Molina, and Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence for New York City’s Department of Sanitation.
“The Treasures in the Trash Museum,” as the collection is called by its founder, is located in DSNY Sanitation Garage 11 on 99th street between First and Second Avenue, in a space deemed unsafe for garbage trucks. Molina grew up poor in New York City, as one of six siblings. As a kid, he would go out on the streets a week before Christmas, to look for objects in the trash he could fix up to gift to his brothers and sisters. “I was the Santa Clause in my family,” he remembers. After passing the civil service exams, Molina had the choice of working at three different city agencies, but he chose the sanitation department, because it was also great way to continue his hobby of collecting interesting stuff.
Molina started collecting around the time he joined the department, and more than 90% of all the pieces have be collected from Manhattan District 11 between 96th Street to 110 Street and between 1st and 5th Avenues (Molina’s route). The collection grew over time and he started categorizing all the pieces together. In the gallery, you can see a variety of things from door knobs to train sets, watches, chinaware, toys, paintings, and chairs, all grouped together. Most of these, however, were collected at different times, sometimes years apart, but the whole space is brilliantly organized, each table following a theme. Incredibly, many pieces are still in working condition, from an old projector from the silent films era to dolls and toy trains and gym equipment.
For a short period of five years, Molina actually documented every new piece he brought in (date, time, address where found, etc) but stopped it eventually because it was just too time consuming. As such, there isn’t an official count on the number of pieces in the collection, but Molina estimates there are easily over 50,000. He cleans and fixes a lot of the pieces before adding them to the collection, but does not follow any specific criteria. If it looks cool, it becomes part of the museum. On our visit, his coworker recounted that Molina can tell just by the way a garbage bag sounds if it has anything worth checking out and what’s inside.
For Christmas, Molina decorates a space in the museum with lights, Christmas trees and decorative items thrown away by people. He also plays music on a CD Player (found in the trash, of course). We asked Molina if there were other places he would like to explore for discarded treasures, and it was a quick yes! He has found that often the wealthier the neighborhood, the more interesting the garbage. The Upper East Side and Upper West Sides have a lot of old and unique finds, he told us.
But with Molina now retired from DSNY, the agency is hoping to find a new place for the collection. With the garage long unsuitable for its primary usage, the DSNY intends to bulldoze the current structure and build a new one. Molina and Nagle hope to find a new home for the unique collection quickly. Stay tuned as we follow the progress on this initiatives and check out more images below from this most unique of spaces in New York City: