Treasures in the Trash: A Secret Museum Inside a New York City Department of Sanitation Garage

Like many New York­ers, retired san­i­ta­tion work­er Nel­son Moli­na has a keen inter­est in his fel­low cit­i­zens’ dis­cards.

But where­as oth­ers risk bed­bugs for the occa­sion­al curb­side score or dump­ster dive as an envi­ro-polit­i­cal act, Molina’s inter­est is couched in the cura­to­r­i­al.

The bulk of his col­lec­tion was amassed between 1981 and 2015, while he was on active duty in Carnegie Hill and East Harlem, col­lect­ing garbage in an area bor­dered by 96th Street, Fifth Avenue, 106th Street, and First Avenue.

At the end of every shift, he stashed the day’s finds at the garage. With the sup­port of his cowork­ers and high­er ups, his hob­by crept beyond the con­fines of his per­son­al area, fill­ing the lock­er room, and even­tu­al­ly expand­ing across the mas­sive sec­ond floor of Man­hat­tan East San­i­ta­tion Garage Num­ber 11, at which point it was declared an unof­fi­cial muse­um with the uncon­ven­tion­al name of Trea­sures in the Trash.

Because the muse­um is sit­u­at­ed inside a work­ing garage, vis­i­tors can only access the col­lec­tion dur­ing infre­quent, spe­cial­ly arranged tours. Hunter College’s East Harlem gallery and the City Reli­quary have host­ed trav­el­ing exhibits.

The Foun­da­tion for New York’s Strongest (a nick­name orig­i­nal­ly con­ferred on the Depart­ment of San­i­ta­tion’s foot­ball team) is rais­ing funds for an off­site muse­um to show­case Molina’s 45,000+ trea­sures, along with exhibits ded­i­cat­ed to “DSNY’s rich his­to­ry.”

Molina’s for­mer cowork­ers mar­vel at his unerr­ing instinct for know­ing when an undis­tin­guished-look­ing bag of refuse con­tains an object worth sav­ing, from auto­graphed base­balls and books to keep­sakes of a deeply per­son­al nature, like pho­to albums, engraved watch­es, and wed­ding sam­plers.

There’s also a fair amount of seem­ing­ly dis­pos­able junk—obsolete con­sumer tech­nol­o­gy, fast food toys, and “col­lectibles” that in ret­ro­spect were mere fad. Moli­na dis­plays them en masse, their sheer num­bers becom­ing a source of won­der. That’s a lot of Pez dis­pensersTam­agotchis, and plas­tic Furbees that could be clut­ter­ing up a land­fill (or Ebay).

Some of the items Moli­na sin­gles out for show and tell in Nico­las Heller’s doc­u­men­tary short, at the top, seem like they could have con­sid­er­able resell val­ue. One man’s trash, you know…

But city san­i­ta­tion work­ers are pro­hib­it­ed from tak­ing their finds home, which may explain why Depart­ment of San­i­ta­tion employ­ees (and Molina’s wife) have embraced the muse­um so enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly.

Even though Moli­na retired after rais­ing his six kids, he con­tin­ues to pre­side over the muse­um, review­ing trea­sures that oth­er san­i­ta­tion work­ers have sal­vaged for his approval, and decid­ing which mer­it inclu­sion in the col­lec­tion.

Preser­va­tion is in his blood, hav­ing been raised to repair rather than dis­card, a prac­tice he used to put into play at Christ­mas, when he would present his sib­lings with toys he’d res­cued and res­ur­rect­ed.

This thrifty ethos accounts for a large part of the plea­sure he takes in his col­lec­tion.

As to why or how his more sen­ti­men­tal or his­tor­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant arti­facts wound up bagged for curb­side pick­up, he leaves the spec­u­la­tion to vis­i­tors of a more nar­ra­tive bent.

Sign up for updates or make a dona­tion to the Foun­da­tion for New York’s Strongest’s cam­paign to rehouse the col­lec­tion in an open-to-the-pub­lic space here.

To inquire about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of upcom­ing tours, email the NYC Depart­ment of San­i­ta­tion at

Pho­tos of Trea­sures in the Trash by Ayun Hal­l­i­day, © 2018

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Muse­um Ded­i­cat­ed Exclu­sive­ly to Poster Art Opens Its Doors in the U.S.: Enter the Poster House

The Muse­um of Fail­ure: A Liv­ing Shrine to New Coke, the Ford Edsel, Google Glass & Oth­er Epic Cor­po­rate Fails

The Dis­gust­ing Food Muse­um Curates 80 of the World’s Most Repul­sive Dish­es: Mag­got-Infest­ed Cheese, Putrid Shark & More

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Although she lives and works inside Nel­son Molina’s for­mer pick up zone, she has yet to see any of her dis­cards on dis­play. Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Octo­ber 7 when her month­ly book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain cel­e­brates the art of Aubrey Beard­s­ley. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.