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  Newsmakers   Turning New York City’s trash into treasure

Turning New York City’s trash into treasure

Published : Mar 14, 2016, 2:28 am IST
Updated : Mar 14, 2016, 2:28 am IST

Items are displayed as part of former New York sanitation worker Nelson Molina’s “Treasure in the Trash” gallery in New York. — AFP

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Items are displayed as part of former New York sanitation worker Nelson Molina’s “Treasure in the Trash” gallery in New York. — AFP

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. 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. The premises are not open to the public, but visits are occasionally organised. “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. In a city that each day produces 12,000 tonnes of waste, 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 co llection 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 favourite 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 neighbourhood,” says Robin Nagle, anthropologist in residence at the department of sanitation. But she admits the cost of renting a dedicated building would be exorbitant.

Location: United States, New York