If you’re walking down East Seventy-Ninth Street between First and Second Avenues in December, you might see a blue glow emanating from a subterranean parking garage, and hear faint strains of Lite FM holiday music drifting up the entrance ramp.
For the past thirteen years, Javier Sanchez, the manager of the garage beneath the Continental Towers apartment building, at 301 East Seventy-Ninth Street, has been decorating his underground lair with a phantasmagoria of winter holiday decorations. While New York City tourists flock to the bucolic streets of Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, to ogle mansions decked out with inflatable reindeer, passels of wise men, regiments of giant toy soldiers, and illuminated Santas alighting on rooftops, Sanchez’s display, though diminutive by comparison, is no less impressive for the holiday spirit it brings to this otherwise banal corner of the city, a place most people want to get into and out of as quickly as possible: a public garage. In this case, Sanchez’s display is advertised by nothing more than a “Park” sign above a Duane Reade. But visitors tend to linger, and many arrive on foot—or by stroller or scooter.
Though you might have to wait for a car or two to pass before entering, at the bottom of the ramp you’ll be greeted by a giant menorah surrounded by a constellation of blue and silver orbs, framed by a trellis of sparkling lights. Sanchez illuminates a new candle for each day of Hanukkah. Holiday and winter-themed music is piped out of a small speaker balanced on the edge of the exit ramp.
Next to the Hanukkah display, below the blind-spot mirror and adjacent to a “Low Clearance” sign, is a cozy Christmas Eve scene of a fireplace hung with stockings, complete with a flickering electric fire. Santa is climbing up the chimney on a candy cane ladder, right into a ceiling soffit.
A bit farther down the ramp and around a sharp turn, beside a trio of orange parking cones, is the pièce de resistance, which Sanchez says he starts working on in April: the mechanized winter wonderland he calls Frosty’s Village. Car tires squeak past, rounding the corner carefully, as visitors lean over the railing to admire the miniature village and mountainscape, complete with moving elements, from Santa in his sleigh circling overhead to a fairground and windmill.
The display is not behind glass, so children are free to play with the toys from the three levels of viewing steps in front, thoughtfully carpeted to protect small knees. Javier says the space was unused before he took it over for his display; he has no children of his own, but wants to bring youthful joy to his community. He shrouds the construction behind a shower curtain until its unveiling in December. In between parking cars, he ducks inside to arrange the figurines and rig up the moving elements. If you look closely, you can see the curtain rings and rod above his head.
This year, he’s most proud of the water feature: a river that courses through the town, powered by a circulating water pump, and featuring a couple improbably rowing in the icy water.
There’s a small village, complete with a cheese shop where the cheeses are as large as the fromagiers’ heads, Black Friday shoppers wearing antlers, and a Venetian café: in the windows are silhouettes of a cook tossing a round of pizza dough, and a couple having a candlelit conversation.
A Ferris wheel spins. Sledders perch atop a hill, about to carom down into a snow-dusted pine tree, or into an oblivious couple cuddling on a bench by the riverside.
There’s even a functioning chair lift ferrying skiiers up and down the mountain on a pair of wobbly wires, and a rink where moving figure skaters trace circles on the ice.
Shoppers traipse up and down snowy steps, holding hands or cups of hot chocolate. A cardinal pecks at seeds in a birdhouse. A man holding too many gifts slips and falls in the snow.
Though there doesn’t appear to be a parking garage in the scene—or even any cars—the garage at 301 East Seventy-Ninth is active 24-7, and every few minutes Sanchez is called away from Frosty’s Village by a shrill bell from the entrance. Several visitors are monthly customers, and clap Sanchez on the shoulder, praising his latest additions and comparing the display to last year’s. He says he gets most of his supplies, including the miniatures, at Home Depot, Yankee Candle, and House of Holiday. The displays cost between $2,500 and $3,000, he says; he collects contributions from his coworkers and a donations box.
On your way out, you might spot a table wedged between several parked cars, outfitted with a glue gun and other tools. This is where Javier makes emergency repairs. A few doors concealed by strands of holiday lights allow access to the back of the display.
Take a stroll across town, far from the dazzling lights of Rockefeller Center, and descend into New York City’s hidden holiday underworld. Maybe you’ll even master “Frosty’s Challenge” and spot Sasquatch hiding in the snow on the mountain—though Sanchez will probably give you a prize lollipop anyway. He always has a few in his pocket.
Frosty’s Village and Sanchez’s other holiday scenes are on display at GMC garage, at 301 West Seventy-Ninth Street, from about 7 a.m. till 9 p.m. every day until December 31.