Our knowledge of the past is often exhumed from its trash, whether Victorian dustbins or ancient middens of bones and shells. In East Harlem, a museum of New York City trash from the last three decades is a more recent anthropological profile of a part of society. Dorm room–worthy posters of the Mona Lisa and Ansel Adams’s photographs mingle with 19th-century stained glass from a Manhattan church. University diplomas are stacked on discarded desks and well-worn tables, with family photographs and military service mementos arranged with care nearby. A small forest of synthetic Christmas trees is illuminated by colored lights, while in a dark corner broken violins and disused drumsticks rest quietly, hinting at halted ambitions. Whether priceless heirloom or worthless junk, each of these relics was saved from the landfill by retired sanitation worker Nelson Molina, who created the Treasures in the Trash Museum on East 99th Street.
“Every single thing you see, he rescued while behind the truck here in East Harlem,” Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation, said on a recent visit to the museum organized by Open House New York (OHNY). Molina added that he can often identify a garbage bag of potential trash treasure by its shape or the sound it makes. “I’ve got these sensors that go off,” he explained, such as the rattle of a vase among glass bottles or the distinctly pointed presence of a picture frame.
The tour was part of OHNY’s yearlong series Getting to Zero: New York + Waste. The Treasures in the Trash Museum is usually off-limits to the public, as it’s housed in the working MANEAST 11 sanitation garage, though it has opened in the past for the annual OHNY Weekend. “Only in New York would we have a sold-out tour of a sanitation garage full of discarded items on a Sunday,” remarked Gregory Wessner, OHNY executive director. He noted that the museum is, in a way, the “heart of this entire series,” as it demonstrates so much about “what we keep and what we discard.” Upcoming programs in Getting to Zero include tours of the Hamilton Avenue Marine Transfer Station, which is part of a shift to marine and rail transport to reduce air pollution, and the Freshkills Park, a landfill that’s now a green space. Digital “Waste Journeys” further explore the city’s infrastructure, all with the aim of answering the question, “When you throw something away in New York City, where does it go?”
At Treasures in the Trash, Molina explained that he’d always been a “picker,” going back to when he was a kid and would scope out the old toys being thrown away before Christmas to bring home to his family. “This is the passion that I’ve always had,” he said.
He joined the Department of Sanitation in 1981, and from then until he retired, in 2015, his route was 96th Street to 106th Street between First and Fifth Avenues in Manhattan. “The majority of the stuff that you find here is from that one area,” he said. Because he was such a dedicated employee and never took the found objects home, he was allowed to expand his collection from an initial installation in the employee locker room to a full floor of the garage. “I always did my job; I never slowed down,” he said.
A few items were discovered by fellow sanitation workers, although Molina maintains final say on whether something will be installed. Now retired, he still comes in three days a week to the museum. “I’m always rearranging things here,” he said. And it’s that curating, juxtaposing, and sorting through decades of detritus that makes the museum more than just an Ali Baba’s cave of consumerism. Humorous touches include a huge mounted fish eating a plastic shark, a display of real war heirlooms presided over by a toy tank, a garland draped over the neck of a tiny horse, as if it had won a race, and a stuffed fox hiding among the plastic Christmas trees. A silent film projector is set up on one table, while signed baseballs, a jumble of stopped clocks, lines of doorknobs, and an array of glassware ordered by color rest nearby. Some pieces are heartbreakingly personal, like a clock engraved with the words, “Steve, wishing you great success. Love, Kevin and Amy.” Absolutely every possible space is used, starting with a fake rat in a cage on the staircase leading up to the museum. A compact office is even nestled in an alcove above the exit sign, complete with lamp and radio.
The museum is able to reside on the second level of the garage because the brick and cement building is no longer structurally sound for heavy sanitation trucks. Soon, it will likely be torn down, and it’s unclear what the fate of the museum will be. For now, it’s one of those hidden gems in New York City, where one person’s fascination with an overlooked aspect of urban life — its trash — has evolved into a portrait of the city’s diverse people. At the end of the OHNY tour, one visitor asked Molina if he had any estimate of the number of items in the museum. He answered simply “no,” the sprawl of objects on the ceiling, floor, and walls around him silently affirming his response.
Upcoming programs for Open House New York’s Getting to Zero: New York + Waste 2017 are listed online.