The Armory: The Power of the Place

Derrick Adkins and Dr. Norbert Sander greet President Bill Clinton at the Armory. This image was snapped by Mary DiBiase Blaich of at a college commencement in May 2010.

When I think of the site of the 2011 Indoor Heps — the Armory Track & Field Center at 168th Street and Fort Washington Avenue in Manhattan — the word that comes to mind is ‘transformational.’ Be it the building, the neighborhood, the sport or young minds — all have been reshaped for 20 years now.

The Armory was reborn in 1993 in the vision of Dr. Norbert Sander, who had run at the facility as a high school student. Having deteriorated along with the city, the Center had become a homeless shelter and, after a tuberculosis scare in 1987, was no longer used for sports.

When Dr. Sander toured the facility in the spring of 1992, he remembered it as “the heart of darkness.” Hundreds of — if not a thousand — beds covered the floor of the track arena and the homeless inhabitants wandered aimlessly. Every window broken and all the plumbing inoperable, the smell, Dr. Sander recalled, “The smell of the place could kill you.”

But he pushed the city, thinking that if it revived the city’s indoor track and field center, it would open dialogue with young people. His focus on track and field was not simply chosen because of his personal background with the sport. He felt that it was a way for young people to reach athletic potential without the illusion of huge financial reward hanging in the balance. Dr. Sander felt that young stardom in a sport like basketball often proved more harmful than beneficial to students.

“There is in so many neighborhoods in this city a kind of adoration for the pro star who circumvents the system,” he said. “In my neighborhood, the star was the kid who went to medical school. When he came back to the block, everybody looked out the window to see how he walked, what he wore. He was like somebody from Mars. We’ve got to start thinking in those terms again.”

And now… in Washington Heights, at least… they are. Not only has the facility become the finest in the nation, attracting events from U.S. Nationals to college conference championships, it has become an athletic and academic haven for student-athletes from across the city. Sean Rice, the coach at Brooklyn’s Midwood High, has seen the difference. His pre-Armory teams had fewer than 10 members. Now he has more than 100.

“It made it a New York City sport again,” said Rice. “This is better than Madison Square Garden. It’s fast. The views are good. It’s also a place where the kid can spend the day doing something positive and the parents don’t mind.”

Peter Walsh, the owner of Coogans neighborhood restaurant around the corner, also credits the Armory’s reclamation as the most vital cause in the resurgence of the once rough-and-tumble neighborhood. He told David Gonzalez of the New York Times that the wholesome presence of hundreds of young athletes warming up in the streets around the building has been a boon in the perceptions of Washington Heights. Coogans itself has become something of an extension of the National Track & Field Hall of Fame, which took permanent residence in the Armory in 2002.

And as noted, the story of The Armory doesn’t stop at the finish line. The place that two decades ago was “the heart of darkness” now serves as an academic beacon. It is where graduates of the Columbia University Medical School receive their diplomas. It is where thousands of parents come each winter to watch lottery ping-pong balls determine whether their children land a spot in the Harlem Success Academy.

It is where employment workshops and internet training sessions in the Charles B. Rangel Technology and Learning Center help the community build itself. It is where 1996 Olympic gold medal winner Derrick Adkins has founded the Armory College Preparation Program, committed to make student-athletes from New York City Public Schools college ready with the aid of a number of collaborating partners. It is where students can prepare for standardized college tests as well as master the art of the hurdles.

What happens on the track is simply a small part of the Armory story.

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