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Meet the New Yorker cataloging the history of the city through its trash

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A sanitation worker collected thousands of items from the trash for 34 years and 300 of them are now part of an East Harlem exhibit

Nelson Molina’s “Treasures in the Trash” collection
Courtesy of DSNY.

During the 34 years that Nelson Molina worked for NYC’s Department of Sanitation, he learned to identify interesting items New Yorkers discarded—a 1958 Manhattan phone book, for example, or old typewriters—by shaking bags of trash. And for all those years, as he worked his route from 96th to 110th streets in East Harlem, he collected thousands of things that people threw out, ranging from toys to furniture.

At first, Molina stored those items in the men’s locker room at the DSNY garage on East 99th Street, where sanitation trucks in the area park. But eventually, his collection grew so large that he had to move it to a larger space adjacent to the second-floor locker room. It’s now filled with 45,000 to 50,000 items.

Locker room at East Harlem’s DSNY garage, full of items Molina has collected over the years.
Courtesy of DSNY.

Molina is a lifelong resident of the neighborhood: He was born in Metropolitan Hospital (coincidentally located in front of the East 99th Street garage), grew up nearby, and raised his children in East Harlem. Collecting is something he’s loved since he was a kid. “I would go out like a week, two weeks before Christmas and pick up the old toys people were throwing out—even if it was broken I would take it and try to fix it,” Molina recalls.

Although Molina retired in 2015, he still collects items he finds in the area. (In fact, everything in his collection, including the tables and shelves on which objects are stored, was found by him or his colleagues.) Once he finds something he likes, he sets it aside, brings it to the garage—which he’s since named Treasures in the Trash—and gets to work fixing it.

“Some of them are broken, some of them need frames, some of them need new glass, and I don’t buy anything,” Molina says.

A 1958 phonebook Molina found in the trash.
Valeria Ricciulli
Typewriters of all kinds, found in the trash, part of Molina’s collection.
Valeria Ricciulli

The garage is only publicly accessible once a month when Molina leads tours of the space. But those who are curious about his collection can see 300 items as part of “What is Here is Open,” an exhibition that also features the work of several NYC contemporary artists, on view at Hunter East Harlem Gallery.

Alicia Grullón, an artist based in the Bronx, curated the exhibition alongside Molina. “All these objects were once someone’s—our imaginations can go in a thousand different directions about each personal object, and how it ended up in the trash is just another narrative,” Grullón says.

She and Molina created a story for the objects, arranging them as if the gallery was someone’s apartment. Some of the objects from Molina’s collection, set in a section of the exhibit, represent the Puerto Rican community in El Barrio.

Art work by Shellyne Rodríguez/Photo by Brandon A. Jones, courtesy of Hunter College/Hunter East Harlem Gallery.
Art work by Tomie Arai/Photo by Brandon A. Jones, courtesy of Hunter College/Hunter East Harlem Gallery.

The exhibit isn’t just about showing off the trash that Molina has turned into treasure—it’s also about connecting those items to the past, present, and future identity of East Harlem. The objects in Molina’s collection, some over 100 years old, Grullón says, tell the stories of those who once lived in the area: a diary that someone kept with entries from 1920 to 1922, a German passport from the turn of the century.

“When people come here and look at [the objects]—it reminds them of when they were kids from the neighborhood,” Molina says.

What is Here is Open: Selections from the Treasures in the Trash Collection will be on view at Hunter East Harlem Gallery, 2180 3rd Avenue, until September 14.