Do you ever wonder what happens to your garbage after you put it out on the curb? Likely, you just assume it goes to a landfill, and you don’t even give it a second thought, right? Well, if you lived in East Harlem at any point over the past 30 years, you might be surprised to learn that some of the items you thought of as trash have since become another man’s treasure. And you can see it all for yourself at (what I believe to be) the most unique museum in all of NYC: The Treasures in the Trash Museum!
This spectacular collection of NYC history was started in the ‘80s by Nelson Molina, who was a Manhattan garbage collector for more than 30 years before retiring back in 2015. Nelson’s route covered a section of East Harlem from 96th Street to 106th Street between First and Fifth Avenues in Manhattan, and that is where the vast majority of his collection was procured. Last week, I was able to visit the museum with the New York Adventure Club, who offers regular visits to the Treasures in the Trash Museum.
Over the years, Nelson had a way of spotting hidden treasures in the garbage. It could be the weight of a bag or the sound of objects hitting together inside, but somehow he knew when he might find something special. In the early days of his collecting, he saved items from his route and kept them in the locker room at work since garbage collectors aren’t permitted to take items home with them.
Eventually, the collection expanded, and he started taking over space at the working sanitation garage where the museum is housed today. According to Nelson, he didn’t really ask for permission – he just started doing it!
We asked Nelson how he decided what to salvage and display in his collection, and he told us that he liked things that were old and imperfect. The really nice stuff didn’t quite catch his eye. That all could be donated or recycled. But things that are old and unusual, like a silent film projector or typewriters, are what really stand out to him. He also likes items that are broken but fixable, and he has plenty of tools and cleaning supplies (also salvaged from the trash) that he uses to restore and repair many of the objects he’s found over the years.
Nelson told us that this trash collecting habit of his actually started when he was much younger. He would often find discarded toys that he would clean and repair and give to his siblings and later, his kids. He also credits his mother and other relatives for teaching him how to do a lot of the repair work, and he told us a story about his mother fixing a toaster with a red-hot butter knife when he was a kid because they couldn’t buy a new toaster. According to Nelson, trash can have new life again if you have the skills and tools to make it so.
After Nelson gave us a bit of history about his collection, we had time to wander around and check things out on our own. It’s astounding that all of these items were thrown in the trash. (And as I looked at the collection, I couldn’t help but wonder why some of the objects were even owned by someone in the first place, but that’s another story.)
Several items really stood out to me, though, including people’s framed diplomas and a bunch of family photos. I assume that these are the result of a house-cleaning after the death of a relative, but part of me also wondered…was there a fight that led someone to toss these photos in a rage? Did someone cast off their career as a lawyer to work in another industry and just chuck that diploma in the trash? Who knows?
It really isn’t just the items themselves that are interesting but the thoughts you have while looking at them and wondering who their previous owners might have been. Why did they buy this? Was it a gift? What made them decide to throw this particular item away? Who knew that looking at a bunch of garbage could cause you to have so many deep thoughts?!?!
Nelson is essentially the curator of the museum, deciding what stays and what goes and, more importantly, how to group everything together. His approach has mostly been to group similar items together rather than focus on a specific timeframe. As such, you can wander through and see groups of VCR tapes, action figures, toys, sporting equipment, timepieces, kitchen utensils, and more. Walking through it all, I couldn’t help but wonder, what’s the next fad item or obsolete technological equipment that everyone will be tossing out next?
We asked Nelson if there was a particular item in his collection that was his favorite, and he told us about a plaque in the shape of the Star of David that was made out of steel from the World Trade Center. Nelson had helped to clean up at the WTC after 9/11, telling us all he had was a paper mask. He was only there shortly, though, because his father became ill and died shortly after, and he was unable to return to aid in the clean-up effort.
Nelson said that despite his sadness about his father’s death, he is also grateful that he didn’t end up spending more time cleaning up at the WTC site with that inadequate paper mask, and he hopes that, as a result of his early departure from the site, he will not experience any of the health issues that many other first responders and sanitation workers have dealt with since 2001. And for that, he is particularly fond of that WTC steel star. (Apparently, the owner of the plaque had contacted Nelson to ask for it back, saying it had been thrown away accidentally, but then he never came to retrieve it.)
And since the plaque is still there, you can see it for yourself if you visit. The museum is not open to the public, so you can’t just stop by (and please don’t try to do so because it is inside an active sanitation garage). If you want to visit, you’ll need to join a New York Adventure Club tour, sign up during Open House New York, or reach out and try to request an appointment to stop by on your own. It doesn’t really matter how you visit, as long as you make a point to do so!
The Treasures in the Trash museum definitely has a bit of something for everyone, and if you lived in Nelson’s collection area while he was a collector, you may even find some of your own discarded items in the museum. But even if you have no connection, the museum will still take you on a fascinating journey back through time. If you like antiques or were always keen on following fads and trends, you’ll be delighted by all the treasures that await you.
Have you ever visited NYC’s Treasures in the Trash Museum? Tell me what you thought about it!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- NYC Treasures in the Trash Museum: 343 East 99th St., New York, NY 10029
When to Go
- The museum is not currently open to the public. If you want to visit, check the New York Adventure Club tour calendar, or you can sign up to visit during Open House New York, which is held annually in October.
Tips for Visiting
- The museum is housed in an active sanitation garage, and when you arrive, you’ll see a door that says “No Trespassing”. Remember, you can only enter if you’re joining a tour or have made an appointment. Otherwise, you WILL be trespassing on city property (which is generally not a great idea.)
- Depending on when and how you visit, you’ll likely have some time to explore the collection on your own. However, I highly recommend sticking close to Nelson so you can ask him about specific items in the collection. He has tons of stories!
- The aisles are very, very narrow, so it is recommended that you do not bring a lot with you on the day of your visit.
- Be sure to look up, down, and all around because there is stuff to see everywhere, and you don’t want to miss any of it!