From its bell jars containing Croton Aqueduct stalactites, to ephemera from the defunct Chinatown newsstand Petrella’s Point, Brooklyn’s City Reliquary is a shrine to New York artifacts that many would view as trash. In their current exhibition NYC Trash! Past, Present, & Future, curated by Bill Scanga, the nonprofit in Williamsburg is delving deeper into the city’s battle with its garbage.
“Today New York’s waste has no place within the city’s borders,” Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence for New York City’s Department of Sanitation, states on one of the exhibition labels. “Garbage is sent by truck, train, and barge to states near and far.” Yet as NYC Trash! reveals, this is only a recent development. In 19th-century Manhattan, the streets were, in a word, disgusting. With no official system to remove trash, it just piled up. Photographs by Jacob A. Riis capture the squalid conditions of the trash-strewn tenement neighborhoods. During his brief reign as commissioner of New York’s Department of Street Cleaning from 1895 to 1898, the Civil War veteran Colonel George Edwin Waring, Jr. brought a military-style order to his street sweepers, who sported pristine white helmets that got them the nickname “White Wings.” Photographs from an 1895 issue of Harper’s Weekly show the startling difference between the grime and debris on the streets before and after Waring.
NYC Trash! has more in text and photographs than objects (unless, of course, you count the whole City Reliquary), but there is a large case packed with selections from the Treasure in the Trash Museum. As previously profiled on Hyperallergic, the the museum is located in an East Harlem sanitation garage, and is brimming with curiosities both mundane and rare saved by now retired sanitation worker Nelson Molina. In the NYC Trash! display, a row of Furbies and array of old cellphones are joined by family heirlooms and an old taxi meter. Nearby are bottles and a horse bone found at Dead Horse Bay, a former Brooklyn landfill that is being eroded, so trash is constantly littering its beach. Later landfills, like the 2,200-acre Freshkills on Staten Island which opened in 1948 and closed in 2001, were similarly destructive to the city’s environment, although its heaps of trash are now being transformed into a park.
One wall is devoted to seven local artists and organizations that address urban waste, including Mierle Laderman Ukeles who recently had a retrospective on her work as artist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation, streetscape photographer Larry Racioppo, Hack:Trash:NYC that hosts hackathons on waste management, the Lower East Side Ecology Center that collects electronic waste, and Material for the Arts that collects and distributes art supplies to schools and nonprofits. The City Reliquary is also hosting complementary programing, such as an upcoming screening of Canners (2017) on collectors of New York City’s cans and bottles, and a tour of the Treasures in the Trash Museum. In April, an installation of trash art by local artists will open in the City Reliquary sculpture garden. While the exhibition itself is small, it is an engaging portal to the ongoing challenge of New York’s trash, and how your trash does not truly disappear after it vanishes from the sidewalk curb.
NYC Trash! Past, Present, & Future continues through April 29 at the City Reliquary (370 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn).