Places that Matter

Treasures in the Trash Museum

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photo by Ariel Rosenblum, 2014
photo by Ariel Rosenblum, 2014
photo by Ariel Rosenblum, 2014
photo by Ariel Rosenblum, 2014
photo by Ariel Rosenblum, 2014
A museum of salvaged trash
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Place Matters Profile

Written by Ariel Rosenblum for Place Matters

From the exterior, the Sanitation Department garage in East Harlem looks exactly like any other city garage- its an unassuming large brick and cement warehouse with garbage trucks and bright orange snowplow blades lining the street all year round. Although there are no signs to identify it, the MANEAST 11 garage as it is called, is home to a very unique collection of objects salvaged from New York City trash. “The Treasures in the Trash Museum,” named by its creator Nelson Molina, is a treasure in itself, hidden on the second story of the East Harlem garage.

A row of offices, locker rooms, and gym equipment delineate the perimeter of the MANEAST 11 garage’s panoramic second floor, a space that now contains thousands of objects handpicked from the trash. Paintings, posters and signs hang from the ceiling and collage the walls; objects are organized and stacked on tables and shelves. The arrangements rely on the architectural structure of the garage but also shape and define the space in new ways, forming walls and pathways.

This built environment of collected trash treasures is inseparable from Nelson Molina, a sanitation collector at the MANEAST 11 garage for 33 years. When Nelson started in the 80s his picking was discreet as NYSD prohibits workers from taking anything from the trash for personal use. In a small closet in the men’s locker room he set up a modest display of his finds that accumulated in number. But the expansion of the collection and its display throughout the MANEAST 11 garage took place about seven years ago, when it was determined that the second story could no longer structurally support the weight of trucks parked there. The trucks moved to the street, and an enormous empty space opened up, a void Nelson began filling with things he had been storing away.
Nelson says his passion for picking began when he was about nine years old. Growing up in the 1960s in the Jefferson Housing Projects not far from the MANEAST 11 garage, Nelson searched for discarded toys in the neighborhood trash for himself and his five siblings. He fixed broken toys with supplies from his mother’s sewing box, retrieving buttons that could replace missing wheels, or a piece of wood he could attach for a doll’s missing arm. At a young age he realized he could find good toys two weeks before Christmas when people were throwing away the old to make room for the new.
Nelson’s intuition and senses have developed over the years, and he describes his “sensors” that tell him when a good find is near. His weekly route for NYSD has encompassed 96 to 106th street East, between 1st and 5th Avenues since he started. On this route, he looks at the way bags bulge from their contents, feels their weight and listens to the sounds they make as he picks them up. He can tell by the number of trash bags on the curb that someone has likely moved or passed away, indicators that he might find perfectly good things that have been chucked. Nelson’s heightened senses aid him in discovering treasures among trash week after week, things he adds to the growing museum.
Despite the overwhelming volume of material in the MANEAST 11 garage, a sense of order prevails. Nelson groups things visually by size, material, and function, as well as by imagery and theme. White ceramic dishes have their own section, as do brass findings, glass vases, shell shaped ceramics, eclectic pottery, baskets, toys and games, records, cameras, chairs, sports equipment, sports memorabilia, used vacuum cleaners, games, among others. The contents of the collection are evidence of the transformation of objects’ value, and testaments to the phenomenon of discarding stuff because it is no longer wanted. Social historian Susan Strasser writes, “Beyond disposable packaging for shipping, washing, or refilling, our culture’s veneration for newness fills our dumpsters with “perfectly good stuff” that is simply not new anymore, stuff the owner is tired of.” The Treasures in the Trash Museum, a collection of objects pulled from the garbage, like a constellation of archeological artifacts, speaks to the culture that consumed and disposed of these things. In this way, the collection is a conjunction of the abstract and the concrete. Each painting, basket, vase, or camera both represents itself, while also recalling patterns of human behavior, layers of immaterial and invisible histories.
As each object recalls a larger context, the patchwork of meaning within the collection is in a way analogous to a quilt exploded into three-dimensions, the objects retaining their identity like each scrap of fabric in a quilt, and arranged according to visual patterns rather than linear story. Within the collection material traces of national and international moments in history are found alongside local artifacts, specimens of popular culture, technology, as well as the personal and anonymous. These materials give voice to New York City in various ways. One of Nelson’s most recent installations is a wall of posters, pictures and maps of Central Park. Dispersed within the collection are a number of objects with the saying, “Become Your Dream” scrawled on them. Nelson has collected these creative interventions by the East Village artist De La Vega who writes aphoristic statements on garbage around the city as part of his street art repertoire. Yet another material trace of the city’s history and collective memory is a medal in the shape of a Star of David, tucked in a glass display case; forged from scrap metal from the World Trade Center wreckage, the medal commemorates the memory of a man who lost his life on September 11th. Other histories are not so obvious, like a globe pulled from the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy on Brighton Beach, or a large papier-mâché moon abandoned after an elementary school play. The proliferation of discarded painted portraits records the diverse faces of the city, anonymous identities.
Drawing from his supply of collected materials, Nelson fixes these finds, revitalizing the aesthetics and function of each object. He frames pictures, cuts mats, replaces broken glass, touches up paint, fixes electronics and broken furniture. For example, a stained glass window Nelson reframed from St. Francis de-Sales church on Lexington and Park dated 1895, is a combination of old and new. Nelson focuses on utilizing each find and crafting its individual presentation, while at the same time paying attention to the balance and composition of the arrangements in space.
While the Treasures in the Trash Museum strongly reflects and is driven by the creative impulse of one individual, the place is also representative of collective effort, and community networks. To begin with, the collection’s location within the Manhattan Sanitation garage would not be possible without the acceptance of department hierarchy and respect of co-workers. But the MANEAST 11 garage and NYSD garages all over the city support the collection actively with contributions, as well. Objects in the collection represent Sanitation workers and trash from all five boroughs, and are typically labeled with the garage they came from. Peripheral networks of people outside NYSD also have a hand in the collection; many supers who manage buildings in Nelson’s neighborhood and along his route put things aside for him.
With the aid of these networks and Nelson’s ongoing picking, the small collection has turned into a large one that continues growing in the sanitation garage and NYSD’s social landscape. However, while the “museum” descriptor might suggest that this place has regular opening times and an admission desk to greet visitors, it is not open to the public. Despite this limited access, the museum has garnered wider attention and interest. In late July 2012, The New York Times ran a short article by Elizabeth Harris titled “In a Sanitation Garage, a Gallery of Scavenged Art” spotlighting Nelson and his sizeable collection of objects pulled from the trash, and blog posts and videos have also featured the trash treasures on the internet.  
A “collection,” “museum,” “gallery,” and “workplace,” the Trash Museum in the MANEAST 11 garage may defy singular definition, but its very existence has citywide significance. As a product of one man’s creative impulse, as well as a reflection of a social landscape within a governmental agency and community network, the garage holds material traces of collective memory from the past and present, local and global, that reach beyond the collection’s site.
Plastic buckets strategically placed around the garage to catch water from the leaky roof are signs that the future of the collection is uncertain. As the MANEAST 11 garage’s structural deficiency enabled the right conditions for the Treasures in the Trash Museum to exist in the first place, inevitably the building will be condemned and the garage will move. Likely, some of the objects will move too, but what will happen to the remainder of the collection and the rich social and cultural contents lodged collectively in this site?
As a place that is full of the abandoned, forgotten, and ignored what would preservation of the Treasures in the Trash Museum look like? How would various modes of preservation alter the collection and/or the place? These questions prompt further considerations of value. Each individual cup and plate, cassette tape, lamp, movie poster, bicycle, or brick-a-bract salvaged from the trash is worth something. But as a representation of New York City- the place and people- the Treasures in the Trash Museum is more than the sum of its parts. 
*A special thank you to Nelson Molina for sharing the Treasures in the Trash Museum, and to NYSD Chief Mellies for permitting visitation and documentation in the MANEAST 11 garage. 

Selected Bibliography

Glassie, Henry. Material Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1999.
Harris, Elizabeth A., “In a Sanitation Garage, a Gallery of Scavenged Art.” New York
Times, July 23, 2012.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. “Objects of Memory: Material Culture as Life Review.”
Nagle, Robin. Picking up: on the streets and behind the trucks with the sanitation
workers of New York City. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2013.
Strasser, Susan. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York: Metropolitan,
Thompson, Michael. Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1979.