Five years ago Norbert Sander stood on a balcony at the Fort Washington Armory, looking out on a wasteland and fighting back tears. What had once been the mecca for high school track and field in New York City had become one of the meanest homeless shelters in the U.S. Batons had been replaced by crack pipes. The smell of sweat had been masked by the odor of urine. And hope had given way to fear. Sander decided that enough was enough.
"It had been a shrine, a holy place," recalls Sander, 52, who set a three-mile record in the armory as a student at nearby Fordham University in 1963. "Then the homeless were moved in, and it became the heart of darkness. People would extort money from the mental patients just to let them sleep."
That wasn't all. Roughly one half of the armory's residents were believed to be addicts. A number had prison records. Men who wanted to shower had to drop a few quarters into a bully's hands. Those who wanted to get high in bathroom stalls simply paid off armory aides. Resident after resident described the place as a "prison without bars."
What a contrast to the armory's earlier days. The huge building, located in upper Manhattan at 168th Street and Fort Washington Avenue, opened in 1909. With its 96,000-square-foot arena—twice the size of today's Madison Square Garden—it quickly became the venue of choice for major city track meets.
Some 12,000 athletes competed in the armory each year, running on an unforgiving wooden track that was as famous for the splinters awaiting those who fell as for the celebrated athletes whose feet pounded the surface. Bob Beamon, who won the gold medal in the long jump at the 1968 Olympics, setting a record that would last 23 years, was one such star. He started running in the armory when he was eight and continued through his days at Jamaica High School in Queens, N.Y. "It was a phenomenal place," he says of the old armory. "I found a lot of role models during my early years there." Vince Matthews, who attended Andrew Jackson High in Queens and won the gold medal in the 400 meters at the '72 Olympics, was another big name.
But the biggest name at the armory will always be Sander's. He is the one who returned the building to the city's young athletes. "People think that kids today are no good," he says. "But it's not the kids who organize the meets. You've got to have an adult who's going to give his time and effort. For this project it had to be someone who had seen the armory in its glory days and knew what it meant to people."
Sander spent much of his own youth at the armory, training and competing in long-distance races. In the late 1950s, during his days at Fordham Prep in the Bronx, Sander thought nothing of commuting an hour and a half each way to the armory from his home in Yonkers, north of the city.
"Running track changed my life," Sander says. It earned him a full scholarship to Fordham, and he set a junior metropolitan AAU three-mile record of 14:54 in the armory in 1963. He continued to run after college, winning the 1974 New York City Marathon. He also had a full life away from the track, working 50 hours a week as an internist specializing in family medicine and raising three daughters—Eva, Jessica and Emma.
In 1981 the city converted the armory into a temporary shelter, putting about 200 cots on its drill floor. For the next few years track meet organizers tried to coexist with the homeless. During big meets the homeless were sent to another floor, but inevitably some of the men would wander into the meet and scare the athletes. In 1984 participation at the Bishop Loughlin Games—the largest indoor track meet in the world—fell off considerably when rumors of AIDS among the homeless at the shelter began circulating. In one year entries dropped from about 3,400 to 2,100. In 1987 a tuberculosis scare effectively ended all competition.
"It bothered me that the city forced us out of here," says Ed Bowes, the track coach at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn and the meet director for the Bishop Loughlin Games. "This was all we had in the city of New York. And I never thought we'd get it back."