Designer and researcher in CT developing human-centered solutions for social impact.

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Designer and researcher in CT developing human-centered solutions for social impact.

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Landfill Ecology

As a researcher for New York City’s Freshkills Park, I helped coordinate the Land Art Generator design competition for artwork that harnesses natural energy and converts it to electricity for the utility grid, on the site of a former landfill. I also helped develop an oral history of sanitation archive, cataloged photographs with the city archivist, and assisted in research, fieldwork, and public programs on site.

As part of this work, I reached out to communities with different histories of land-use on the Freshkills site – residents, sanitation workers, ornithologists – who often held competing ecological, cultural, and political ideas about how the land should be used in the future.

Listen to the many voices of DSNY and Freshkills Park at: Oral History of Sanitation Archive

Since my time at Freshkills, I’ve remained interested in  material cultures of waste and what the things we throw out can tell us about the culture of a place.

I visited the MANEAST 11 sanitation garage in East Harlem, which houses the Treasures in the Trash Museum, a massive, municipal collection, picked up over Nelson Molina’s 34 year career as a sanitation worker with DSNY. The collection itself is astounding, vast, and at times confusing, but the thing that I’m still thinking about isn’t just the stories or the stuff, but the attitude that permeated the space and the way workers at the garage went about their routines, enveloped by this collection.

I got to visit the collection as part of a special event with the City Reliquary Museum, but the Treasures in the Trash Museum isn’t normally open to the public. Most days, it’s a working sanitation garage, where the trucks are housed downstairs, and the folks that are at either end of a shift, eating meals, working out, putting up flyers, or running timecards are doing so surrounded by over 50,000 glorious, functional, emotional, hand-picked items from the detritus of New York City.

Nelson acquired most of the objects in this collection from 96th Street to 106th Street between First and Fifth Avenues in Manhattan from about 1981 to 2015. He grew up recycling and repairing objects out of necessity, and developed an eye and an ear for useful items that could be rescued from the yawning maw of the hopper. Nelson said he could look at a trash bag and tell if something valuable could be inside just by the distorted shape. He could decipher the hollow sound of a vase from the jingle of broken glass without even looking. (I really hope these sounds and descriptions of sounds made it onto the DSNY Oral History Archive)

Talking to Nelson, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between his collecting ethos and the stories my grandfather told me about his own route and life in DSNY decades earlier, in the 1950s and 60s. My grandfather lived in Queens for most of his life and worked the back of a truck on a route through Rego Park. He described picking up busted bikes and toys, repairing them, and redistributing them to neighborhood kids. From what I understand, there were rules that prevented sanitation workers from taking things home and personally profiting off of other people’s garbage, or collecting in a way that interfered with the work to be done, but I got the sense that it was a part of the culture then, that if you knew what to look for, you could find creative ways to use it again.
When Nelson’s collection was just starting out, it was entirely housed in the locker room. I asked some of the guys what they thought about the artwork and whatnot hanging around in such a heavily trafficked area and they said they enjoyed having it, even here - it gives them a sense of identity and pride in their garage, and there’s always something to look at and learn from.

By visiting Nelson’s collection, I was lucky to catch a glimpse into his life, his way of seeing the world through objects of interest over time. I also came away with the idea that there are more connection points between us than we think. And isn’t that what museums should do? Connect people to collective consciousness? Here, trash becomes treasure, and not in a precious way. Instead, it’s in the honest way that this collection is first and foremost for the people who do this work. How they live with it, use it, and are part of its maintenance everyday. This collection that is so obviously an act of love. A love letter to the city and the people who lived full lives within it.

If you’ve never considered where your trash goes after you kick it to the curb, NYC teens and the Center for Urban Pedagogy made a fantastic video that you should absolutely watch for more context on this important system.

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