Turning trash into treasure

Items are displayed as part of former New York sanitation worker Nelson Molina's “Treasure in the Trash” gallery on February 27, 2016 in New York. His exhibit, on the second floor of an East Harlem sanitation garage, was compiled during his 33 years on the job collecting trash. / AFP / Don EMMERT


For 30 years, sanitation worker Nelson Molina kept New York clean —and in the process found beauty in other people’s garbage, rescuing enough condemned items to fill a warehouse. On the second floor of a sanitation truck depot in East Harlem, he has amassed an astonishing collection of thousands of objects once chucked in the bin but now lovingly cleaned and restored.
Walk to the back of the depot, climb a small, steep staircase and you find yourself in an enormous space that at first sight might appear to be a flea market. But none of these items are on sale, although some could fetch a pretty penny. Molina values his collection at $160,000 and calls it “Treasures in the Trash.”
Skis stand next to a Native American children’s play tent. There is a stained glass window and a memorabilia tie from the hit show “Baywatch.” There are dozens of photos and pictures, dated portraits of unknown people perhaps thrown out because of limited space in cramped New York apartments.
To walk the collection is to retrace 30 years of life in East Harlem in intimate detail from the majority Hispanic area, where Molina was born and still lives today. “It’s really well done. You can see the evolution of the neighborhood,” said Martin Bellew, a retired New Yorker on a scheduled tour.
The premises are not open to the public, but visits are occasionally organized. “I call that a museum but it’s not officially a museum,” says Molina, a man of slim build who retired in 2015 after 34 years at the sanitation department.
“I’ve been a picker since I’m nine years old,” said Molina, now in his 60s, who says he inherited the habit from his mother who never threw anything away. “She’s 83 years old,” he said. For Christmas, he buys her tool boxes, pliers and a drill to help her make things.
“She’s still into it,” Molina added.

In a city that each day produces 12,000 tons of waste and where the mayor has vowed to stop sending garbage to landfills by 2030, Molina had to work hard. At first, he kept his finds in a corner of the depot. Then he took over a hall and then the entire second floor when 15 years ago it was deemed too fragile to withstand the heavy weight of sanitation trucks.
Sanitation department rules prohibit workers from taking home anything they pick up on the streets but not from keeping objects at the work place. Molina has spread out his collection with the utmost fastidiousness. Objects are grouped together thematically and lined up on tables: African statuettes, action toy dolls and typewriters.
Molina, something of a handyman, has mended broken objects and repaired electrical parts to bring back to life a Santa Claus and an artificial fountain. His favorite piece? It’s a heavy Star of David sculpted from metal recovered from the site of the Twin Towers in remembrance of a victim of the 9/11 attacks.
Now retired, Molina still comes to the depot twice a week to look after his items, which he insists belong to the warehouse. “I don’t want anybody to take care of it,” he said. His son, who also works at the sanitation warehouse, was not interested in the task. “He told me ‘you’re crazy, that’s too much work.'”
But the future is uncertain. In the next four to five years, the collection will have to move. The Metropolitan Hospital, which owns the site, wants to claim it back. “Ideally, it should stay in this neighborhood,” says Robin Nagle, anthropologist in residence at the department of sanitation. But she admits the cost of renting a dedicated building would be exorbitant.

Former New York sanitation worker Nelson Molina views some of the items in his ìTreasure in the Trashî gallery on February 27, 2016 in New York. His exhibit, on the second floor of an East Harlem sanitation garage, was compiled during his 33 years on the job collecting trash. / AFP / Don EMMERT

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