Turn­ing New York trash into trea­sure

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING -

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 US$ 160,000 ( RM662,400) 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 per­haps thrown out be­cause of lim­ited space in cramped New York apart­ments.

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.

“It's re­ally well done. You can see the evo­lu­tion of the neigh­bour­hood,” said Martin Bellew, a re­tired New Yorker on a sched­uled tour.

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.

“I've been a picker since I was nine years old,” said Molina, now in his 60s, who says he in­her­ited the habit from his mother who never threw any­thing away.

“She’s 83 years old,” he said. For Christ­mas, he buys her tool boxes, pli­ers and a drill to help her make things.

“She's still into it,” Molina added.

In a city that each day pro­duces 12,000 tons of waste and where the mayor has vowed to stop send­ing garbage to land­fills by 2030, 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 work­place.

Molina has spread out his col­lec­tion 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.

Furby toys dis­played at Molina’s ‘ Trea­sures in the Trash’ gallery in New york. — AFP

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