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Fleeting Wonders: A New York City Trash Gallery

For decades, a sanitation worker turned curator has collected and displayed his best Dumpster finds.

If you throw something away in New York City, odds are it will end up in some other state, far from the neighborhood where it spent its life. But if it comes from East Harlem, it might get a second chance. There, on the second floor of a garbage truck depot, sanitation worker and self-taught curator Nelson Molina has spent decades culling and displaying all the garbage that catches his eye. He calls his building-sized work “Treasure in the Trash.”

Molina, who describes himself as “a picker since I’m nine years old,” began collecting interesting garbage along his route early in his 30-year tenure and using it to decorate his work locker, the New York Times reported in 2012. Soon, other sanitation employees began making contributions–first his colleagues, then workers from other boroughs, and finally building superintendents, who set aside compelling items chucked by their tenants. Eventually, he amassed such a trove that he took over a floor of the depot that had been deemed unsafe for trucks. He estimates he has about 1000 pieces of trash.

The collection is closed to the public, but opens occasionally for organized tours. Visitors describe the collection as a unique way of retracing three decades of life in East Harlem. After a February visit, an Agence France-Presse reporter highlighted a gathering of plastic Furbys, a Michael Jackson shrine hung with guitars, “a stained glass window and a memorabilia tie from the hit show Baywatch.” Last year, a WNYC producer photographed war helmets, discarded degrees, and row upon row of typewriters.

Though he recently retired, Molina returns to his old workplace twice weekly to check in on the collection, whose days may be numbered–the depot will soon be reclaimed by the Metropolitan Hospital, and it’s unclear what will happen to its second-floor tenant, which, Molina points out, is “not officially a museum.” Fans want to save it, but it’s difficult to imagine renting a whole building to house it, says sanitation department anthropologist Robin Nagle told AFP.

In the meantime, Molina will do what he can himself. “I don’t want anybody [else] to take care of it,” he says.

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to ;cara@atlasobscura.com.