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February 9, 2017

The Armory’s history goes well beyond track and field

Back in 2012, I was on a run along the East River Esplanade with my friend Leighton during our junior year at Columbia. It was one of the first warm days of spring that year — the kind of day that makes you forget how much you hated the city all cruel winter long — and as we cruised south, we marveled over how built-up and generally impressive Manhattan is. A few blocks north of the Queensborough Bridge, with complete sincerity, Leighton mused, “Man, if those walls could talk,” as he gestured at a 20-story residential building that would be the most majestic structure in 99% of all human settlements, but is utterly forgettable in the context of New York City. I nearly shat myself laughing because it was an uncharacteristically dad-like proclamation, but it stuck with me.

And if you’ll allow me to expand this flashback for a moment more, during that previous brutal, aforementioned winter, Leighton and I’d run probably hundreds of miles within the walls of a building that no doubt has a more storied and colorful history than the highrise apartment we ogled in the preceding paragraph.

I’m talking, of course, about The Armory. And since its walls cannot talk, I’m going to butcher what I’d imagine it would have to say.

A basically untitled September 19, 1861 New York Times article, informs us that the 22nd Regiment was was a volunteer unit numbering upwards of 500 New Yorkers, attached to the Union Army’s Fourth Brigade and was sworn in the day before by Major Taylor and General Burnside (of sideburn fame). The 22nd was best known for its role in suppressing the 1863 Draft Riots in Lower Manhattan and was among the first regiments to lay claim to its own armory – originally on 14th Street. Even after the Civil War’s conclusion, some iteration of the 22nd persisted on, relocating to a different armory on the Upper West Side in 1890.

The 22nd’s Reconstruction Era purpose is not something I am not totally interested in as I generally have a hard time following military history, so I didn’t bother looking it up. It’s not relevant, really. Besides, the Draft Riots were pretty justified and proof that this country has a history of — among other things — treating poor people like shit…more on that later.

Anyway. By 1907, the city’s Armory Board deemed it necessary to hold a contest to determine the design for a newer armory for the lucky boys of the 22nd. The architecture firm of Richard Walker and Charles Morris won out and construction began shortly thereafter in Fort Washington at the intersection of the neighborhood’s eponymous avenue and 168th Street. Four years later, what we now colloquially refer to as “The Armory,” was completed.

From its opening in 1911 until its formal deactivation in 1991, the Fort Washington Armory served a variety of military functions, which you can learn more about here. But more relevantly to this piece and website, on January 10th, 1914, the first meet was held on the wooden track that would be trampled on by the East Coast’s — and occasionally the World’s — best track athletes until the mid-1980s (save a six year window during World War II where the facility was used exclusively for military purposes.)

[Aside: If you have a New York Times subscription, I highly recommend searching their online, digitized archives for: “FORT WASHINGTON” + ARMORY. You can search their bafflingly comprehensive database for free but many older articles are behind a paywall. This proved a valuable resource in researching this scrappy piece, but I’m sure somebody with better access who is also a better writer than me could churn out a really amazing history of the Armory.]

Right from the beginning, the Armory’s notorious boards attracted athletes from well outside New York City. Although its primary focus as a track facility always was and continues to be serving New York City youth. There’s no telling how many races might have been run on that old spike-splintered track. Up until fairly recently, amateur athletics were about as ephemeral as any event could possibly be, though I’m sure given infinite time, infinite typewriters and infinite old guard New Yorkers who grew up running track, you could construct quite the oral history.

Headlines from the middle decades of the 20th century all tell more or less the same story. The Armory was the Mecca for runners across the entire Metropolitan area. It hosted meets held by the likes of Manhattan College, Fordham, and NYU during their respective athletic heydays. High school meets drawing thousands of athletes were commonplace and the two-hour drive from places like Putnam County, New York and southern New Jersey were given little thought. AAU championships were contested frequently at the Armory, back when that was the dominant governing body for the sport. And the IC4A Championships were a staple on the yearly calendar — once again, back when the IC4A Meet was to college track what the NIT Championships are for college hoops today.

But scanning the Times’ archives, there is a noticeable shift in the commentariat’s go-to throwaway statements about the Armory from the 1950s to the 1980s. Perhaps this dichotomy is best espoused in an interview with Dr. Norbert Sander, a former Fordham track standout, who in the early 1990s helped revive the Armory.

While describing a spill he took on the boards during a race in the 1960s, he lightheartedly describes the event: “Besides the splinters, I had floor burn…I was as red as a beet. My skin looked like it had gone through a meat grinder.” But when looking back on the Armory of the 1980s, he glumly recalls: “Every window was broken. All the plumbing was broken. We found hermits living in the corners.”

It seems logical enough that the usual issues associated with urban poverty would play a massive role in the decline of The Armory as they did to the city as a whole. But more surprisingly is how the Armory was implicated as a talking point of the press when discussing these widespread societal problems.

Various governmental policies (redlining, blockbusting, 1944’s GI Bill, just to name a few) contributed to a declining city following World War II. For servicemen returning home, it was suddenly much more affordable to construct a new home in the suburbs on Long Island, than it was to rent or purchase an existing property, thanks to stipulations of the bill. Government-allowed and financial-institution-backed housing segregation divided the city along racial lines, leaving the best housing options with the most amenities for those whites who had yet to flee for the suburbs, creating slums in the process. And I could go on about how Robert Moses’s power grabs and racism helped literally cement these policies into place in greater New York City, but I’ll spare you my shit-brained regurgitation of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Anyway, these mechanisms were set in place, given a nudge, and left to build momentum; I’ll step off one soapbox and onto another.

All of this, coupled with a slumping economy, sent New York City on the skids in the 1970s. Crime, unemployment, drug use, homelessness and even a wave of arson swept the city while also captivating the media. In 1975, New York City teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and turned to the federal government for help in the form of a financial bailout. This led to perhaps the most famous newspaper headline of the decade: On October 30th, 1975, the New York Post’s front page boldly read: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.

Two years later, during game two of the 1977 World Series, the broadcast panned back and forth between the game taking place in Yankee Stadium and helicopter footage of a massive building fire raging blocks away in the South Bronx. That same year, a blackout left much of the city without power for over a day, resulting in looting and riots.

It was around this time (1982 by most accounts) that the first cots were placed inside the Armory’s track and the building began its gradual shift toward full-time men’s shelter. Allocations for city funding toward programs pertaining to homelessness are a hot topic to this day, even as New York finds itself thriving in many ways. You can imagine how dire the situation was for New York in the late 1970s, when there simply wasn’t any money to squabble over. As such, the situation at the Armory worsened. More beds were brought in, and Times articles about the Armory grew gradually more ominous into the 1980s.

A December 10th, 1984 report speculates that that year’s Bishop Loughlin Games might be the last, citing coaches’ concerns about athletes contracting AIDS from the Armory shelter’s residents.  A 1988 longform investigative journalism piece describes the prevalence of crack cocaine abuse among the shelter’s residents. And a 1992 report depicts the dire conditions in the Armory, noting how they are especially inhumane for those with mental illness; it opens with:

“New York City’s huge shelters for men are intimidating places for the homeless generally, but they can be truly terrifying for the mentally ill. After the lights go down at night at the Fort Washington Armory in upper Manhattan, paranoid schizophrenics lie nervously next to ex-convicts they rightfully fear. Noises arise in the darkness: the moans of men having sex with men, the cries of the helpless being robbed, the hacking coughs of the sick, the pounding of feet running through a maze of 700 cots packed into one vast room.”

Somewhere during this period of neglect, the underfunded, understaffed and overstuffed facility stopped hosting track meets. Instead it focused its efforts entirely on housing the area’s disenfranchised. At its peak, more than 1,800 men would rest their heads within the Fort Washington Armory each night.

But by the early 1990s, a citywide movement toward providing social services to the homeless, instead of just shoddy, unsafe options for nightly housing, began to take root. This was spurred on by a state-ordered mandate to shut down shelters in places like armories. This was a Mayor Dinkins policy, enacted shortly after race riots broke out in Crown Heights, tarnishing his reputation in the eyes of a solid chunk of his constituents. But financially speaking, and from a general safety standpoint (wild how those things go hand-in-hand!) things were on the uptick as well. This is not to say they were perfect, but homelessness became less visible of a problem.

This opened the door for our old pal Dr. Norbert Sander to spearhead the revitalization of the then unused, cavernous space, where he used to race. This was a highly popular notion, as evinced by editorials from those years. Through a combination of city and private funds, Sander and his rehabilitation-minded colleagues restored the Armory to a world class track facility. On December 18th, 1993, it officially reopened for competition, with the 40th running of the Bishop Loughlin games. A smaller, better kept and better funded shelter and social services center remains a part of the Armory to this day.

For the past 14 years, The Armory’s been one of the most important indoor tracks in the world, once again. Over 100,000 athletes spike up and perform some feat of athleticism on its rubbery surface every year. And with the relocation of the Millrose Games uptown to Fort Washington Avenue, elite racing is once more a mainstay.

This is all to say, how many other tracks in the world have witnessed such an impossibly wide range of humanity? Those at their lowest lows have overdosed and died there. High school boys have shattered the four-minute barrier there too. Troops have drilled and kids have puked after hard 400s. World records have been set, and people have been stabbed. The Armory has held joyful celebrations after relay wins as well as people who the universe treated so poorly they lost their will to live.

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