No one did. But Sander had an extra incentive—the death on April 4, 1990, of his high school track coach, Joe Fox. "This place meant everything to him," Sander says, "and he went out feeling so bad that it had collapsed over the years. I just couldn't go on thinking, Someone will do it for us. It had to be me."
Sander decided on a plan of action: He would mount a very public campaign to reclaim the armory. He came up with the names of 10 people he thought he could count on for help. Fred Lebow, the late New York City Marathon impresario, made the list. Sander wanted Lebow's influential name on his project's letterhead as a means of drawing attention and for financial aid. David Anderson, a former editorial writer for The New York Times, was also tapped. Sander hoped Anderson would be able to lend the campaign support in his articles. Sander also singled out Bob Esnard—then the deputy mayor under Ed Koch—for his knowledge of how best to navigate through various city agencies. All three, as well as many others, agreed to help Sander, and he pressed on.
For the next three years not a day went by in which Sander wasn't writing a letter, knocking on a door or making a phone call. His strategy was to convince the city that everyone would benefit from rescuing the armory, "I never wanted to paint the city as an adversary," Sander says. "I understood that they were up against the gun trying to house the homeless, but I told them that we could turn what was a lose-lose situation into a win-win situation."
Sander's campaign was helped considerably by a lawsuit filed by advocates for the homeless. The suit's goal was to bring an end to huge, unsupervised shelters—a measure the city had wanted to carry out anyway. It succeeded.
Now the batons are back where they should be, in the hands of fleet-footed teenagers as they turn for home on the armory's new Olympic-style track. The infield now houses a high-jump mat instead of row after row of cots. Two hundred homeless men now live on the armory's first floor in a newly constructed wing that houses a psychiatric-services facility and a cafeteria. The other men were moved to smaller shelters throughout the city. And an immense American flag—40 by 60 feet—hangs from the armory's ceiling.
The date is March 4, and the event is the Mayor's Trophy Meet. For Sander it symbolizes the completion of his five-year struggle to resurrect the armory. It had reopened for competition in November 1993, but this is the first time in 18 years that the Mayor's Meet—which attracts the top athletes from the city's public, parochial and independent schools—has returned. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani arrives and reminisces about his days at Bishop Loughlin in the '50s and early '60s, when he went to the armory to cheer on his friends.
In Giuliani's day the armory was special, but it was nothing like it is now. Its $500,000 renovation (funded by several corporations and private donors) includes a six-lane, 200-meter, Mondo-surface track—the kind that was used at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. It also includes a pole-vault area and long-jump pit, a state-of-the-art scoreboard, and a new $4,000 brass rim for the elegant clock that was installed in 1910.
Before the armory's renovation, meets had been moved to Manhattan College and to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. But these venues, which weren't always available for practices, couldn't accommodate anywhere near the 10,000 athletes that the armory can on a given day. "Whenever teams had to travel, some kids got left behind because no school could afford to fit everyone on a bus," says Louis Vazquez, chairman of boys' track and field for the Catholic High School Athletic Association. "This is a facility that the kids can call their home."
With its more than 60 meets a year and hundreds of days taken up with training, the armory, says Sander, is the most used track in the world. And that was his goal. Because the more kids run on the track, the less likely they will be to run from the law.
""When I was in the sixth grade, coaches would look for the skinniest guys, and they'd say, 'You are on the track team,' " recalls Sander. "You felt like you were needed. Kids need someone to make them feel like they have a future."