Street sweepers

Two pickup artists take us curbside to test which 'hood has the most trash to treasure

Neighborhood: Williamsburg

“Recycling was just something we did growing up,” explains design junkie Tiffany Threadgould. This childhood habit led her to start RePlayGround (, a company dedicated to turning discarded materials into new and useful objects, and write a DIY recycling book series, This Into That. We got up in the wee hours of the morning to rummage through the trash with her in a race against the garbage truck.

Photographs: Ben Norman

Score No. 1:

Conselyea Street near Union Avenue
Clearly on a mission, Threadgould walks slowly, scanning trash piles for anything interesting and reusable. She’s immediately drawn to a wire children’s bed frame. She picks it up and examines it more closely. Threadgould deems this find great for organizing notes, bills and important papers. “Hang the frame on a wall like a corkboard and intertwine the pages between the wires,” she suggests. Genius!

Score No. 2:

Conselyea Street between Union Avenue and Lorimer Street
“That’s great fabric,” Threadgould says, pointing at an old, rust-colored armchair. It looks pretty gross, but she assures us that, after a good washing, the fabric would make a custom seat cushion to go on top of a nearby milk crate and, voilà, extra seating.

Score No. 3:

Conselyea Street at Lorimer Street
Threadgould spots a shiny chrome dish rack peeking out from an open trash bag. ῠYou can use this as a mail sorter.” She suggests reserving the area where large dinner plates normally go for envelopes and using the flat surface as a place to keep catalogs and magazines in check.

Score No. 4:

Union Avenue at Leonard Street
People throw out a lot of crazy stuff but it was still sad when we stumbled upon an entire library of unwanted books. Threadgould came up with a stellar solution: a waste bin. She opens two books and stands them up facing one another, creating a rectangle. ῠWith a little bookbinding glue to attach the books and a base at the bottom, this makes a perfect place to throw paper to be recycled,” she says.

Score No. 5:

Conselyea Street at Manhattan Avenue
Threadgould spots an oscillating desk fan coated in thick dirt. Clearly psyched about the find, she takes off the wire cage and pulls out the three fan blades. ῠThis would make a great clock! Paint each fan blade, throw some numbers on there and hang it on the wall.” And don’t forget about the wire cage that can be painted and used as a fruit bowl. The fruits of our labor include a fruit bowl! This pun is way funnier to us than it should be. Worried we’re losing our minds, we switch the hunt from garbage to caffeinated coffee.

Next: Fort Greene/Clinton Hill <b>>></b>

Neighborhood: Fort Greene/Clinton Hill

Myriah Scruggs and Nadia Yaron fell into their business out of necessity when they moved to New York with no furniture—and no money to buy any. They started combing the neighborhood for pieces they could salvage, which led to the founding of Nightwood (, a home decor business specializing in refurbishing discarded furniture. While Yaron’s focus is on textiles—reupholstering chairs with vintage fabrics, bedding and hand-hooked rugs—Scruggs deconstructs large, wooden items and reconstructs them as tables, headboards and cabinets. Again, we raced the trash men to see what we could find.

Photographs: Jeff Gurwin

Score No. 1:

Vanderbilt Avenue at DeKalb Avenue
A block into the mission, we find two tall pieces of wood leaning against a tree— a perfect find, Scruggs claims. ῠJust wash it, take the screws out, cut it and make it into table legs,” she says. And, with that, the wood was strapped onto her handy dandy handcart.

Score No. 2:

Vanderbilt Avenue at Willoughby Avenue
ῠSchools are good to stake out because they’re always throwing out stuff,” says Scruggs, explaining why we’re standing behind St. Joseph’s College. She spots a small cabinet and explains the key to finding reusable wood: steer clear of the fake, laminated stuff and look for pieces that feel clean, not flaky. The inside doors are unfinished and natural-looking, and Scruggs calls them ῠperfect for any table top.”

Score No. 3:

Vanderbilt Avenue between DeKalb and Lafayette Avenues
With our overloaded handcart, we move on and stumble upon a massive cluster of discarded desks that gets Scruggs and Yaron squealing. ῠReplace the top with a new one and it would be a beautiful new workspace,” Scruggs exclaims. There’s a small chance we could find more goods, but our cart looks like it’s going to crap out any moment, so we call it a night.

Next: Pickup tips <b>>></b>

Pickup tips

One man’s trash truly is another man’s treasure. Here, Sue Whitney, author of Junk Beautiful: Room by Room Makeovers with Junkmarket Style, and Alan Boss, founder of Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market, give us the keys to hunting for free loot—while avoiding bed bugs and tetanus.


Go where the rich sleep
“Identify the neighborhoods of upwardly mobile people, where the good stuff is likely to be discarded,” suggests Boss. “Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope in Brooklyn, and the Upper East and West Sides in Manhattan are good places to start.”


Take everything in sight
“There are some items that are truly not salvageable,” explains Whitney. “Be extra wary of upholstered furniture. Many times you won’t discover until you get it home that the beautiful sofa you just picked up was used as a litter box by the previous owner’s kitty.”


Wear gloves
“Be careful when you are rummaging—you never know what could be out of sight,” warns Boss.


“Refrain from taking anything curbside on private property that’s not clearly marked as trash,” says Whitney. “Don’t be afraid to knock on someone’s door and ask permission. The worst they can say is no.”


Go prepared
“Bring something that can help you haul away bigger pieces,” Boss recommends. “A large, durable garbage bag or sack usually does the trick.”


Overlook that random piece of art
“Last year, a woman found a painting in the garbage by a known Mexican artist that was worth over $1 million,” says Bos. “If the discarder doesn’t know what they have, you can find a treasure.”