From the outside, the sanitation garage in East Harlem is rather unremarkable, even a bit dingy looking. Yet, hidden behind the rusted, graffiti-laden doors is something truly magical: a secret museum. The second floor, long deemed too weak to house garbage trucks, is home to three decades worth of salvaged trash. Every inch of the cavernous space is covered with artwork, furniture, and toys — all of which were handpicked out of the trash by the city’s sanitation workers.
The gallery was started by Nelson Molina, who began collecting small trinkets along his route from 96th Street to 106th Street soon after he joined the Department of Sanitation in 1981. He set up a modest display in the men’s locker room, which grew overtime as he continued to find interesting knick-knacks. Gradually, his coworkers took notice and began to contribute their own discarded discoveries. However, as the museum’s creator and curator, Mr. Molina always has the final say over what is displayed. “It doesn't matter what it is. As long as it’s cool, I can hang it up and I’ve got a place for it,” Nelson explained to the New York Times, “That’s why I tell the guys, just bring it in and I’ll decide if I can hang it.”
The garage-turned-gallery is home to thousands of items, which are grouped together by function and theme. Wooden chairs have their own section as do typewriters, brass cups, signed baseballs, karate paraphernalia, and body building trophies. There is even an entire table dedicated to Bill and Hillary Clinton memorabilia. Every religion is represented in the refuse, with an unexpected variety of cruxifixction statues, menorahs, and buddhas on display. Many of the objects are surprisingly personal, including Nelson’s favorite piece: a Star of David forged out of steel from the Twin Towers. Less obvious, but equally as heartbreaking, are the rows of abandoned Ivy League diplomas, faded photographs, and handwritten letters. “You’d be surprised what people throw away,” Mr. Monila said.
Over the past thirty years, Nelson has developed a unique talent for finding curbside treasures. “I have these sensors that go off” he explained “based on the shape and the weight of the bag.” He is particularly attune to the subtle sounds a bag makes when it is handled and claims to be able to differentiate the clink of a vase from that of a wine bottle. “My partner would throw bags into the truck and I’d always be listening. I would hear something, and I’d say ‘Wait, wait! Take that one out.’ — and there would be a candleholder or something.” While Nelson’s tenure at the Department of Sanitation helped refine his scavenging skills, the passion for picking began long before.
When he was about nine years old, Mr. Monila learned that “perfectly good toys” were being thrown away around the holidays to make room for new ones. The week before Christmas, he would scavenge for discarded toys to give to his five siblings. “I was the Santa Claus in my family,” he said. He fixed broken toys with things he could find around the house, using a button from his mother’s sewing box to replace a truck’s missing wheel or a stick of wood to mend a doll’s lost limb. He was inspired by his mother, who insisted on “never throwing anything away that could be used.” When something broke, she would fix it herself, rewiring their household appliances over and over until they were beyond repair. “She could fix anything,” Nelson said with a smile, “and if she couldn’t, the manufacturers couldn’t either!”
Like his mother, Mr. Monila meticulously restores the aesthetic and function of everything he finds. “A lot of these things didn’t look this way when I found them” Nelson explained, “I had to repair a lot of stuff.” He reframes paintings, replaces broken window panes, rewires electronics, and touches up chipped paint. Though some pieces have aged better than others, as evidenced by the pathetic state of the stuffed dog guarding the front entrance. “His tail fell off a while ago,” Nelson laughed “but I still keep reattaching his legs.”
Treasures in the Trash Museum
393 East 99th Street
New York, NY 10029
The museum is not open to the public, but tours are occasionally organized by www.nyadventureclub.com