Dr. Sander Legacy Fund

The Armory today is one of the most impressive indoor track and field facilities in the entire world, hosting dozens of high-caliber meets throughout each season, and is the site of the National Track & Field Hall of Fame. However, this was not always the case. The Armory was primarily a homeless shelter less than thirty years ago, and it was through the vision of one man, Dr. Norbert Sander, that the building was renovated to what it is today.

The first cots were placed inside The Armory in 1982, and over the next decade, the facility was transformed from a track and field center to a full-time homeless shelter. For several years, building management attempted to house both functions side by side, but with numerous safety concerns, the number of meets being hosted dwindled until none remained.

The huge, wide-open nature of The Armory also made it a poor location for a homeless center, as vulnerable, mentally ill individuals were forced to share space with dangerous ex-convicts, and illnesses could rapidly spread throughout the building. The underfunded and overcrowded center painted a grim portrait of urban decay in New York City.

“Life at ‘the Fort’ is a mix of crushing spells of boredom and moments of sheer terror,” wrote a New York Times journalist in a 1992 investigative report.

“People get beat up here every four or six hours,” added one resident who was interviewed for the piece. “Lot of fighting. Lot of violence for anything. For money. For being on the wrong bed. I miss privacy.”

The loss of The Armory as a track and field facility had a devastating impact on the state of scholastic track citywide, as meets were forced to fold or move elsewhere. In stepped Dr. Sander, a longtime board member of NYRR, and also the only native male New Yorker to ever win the NYC Marathon, which he did in 1974. Dr. Sander saw an opportunity to revitalize the city’s track scene, while a simultaneous groundswell of support for better homeless policy was taking place in local politics.

Early in 1992, Dr. Sander stood on the balcony of The Armory, overlooking the roughly 2,000 men living in the facility at the time. He reminisced about competing at The Armory during his high school and college days, later calling the building “a shrine, a holy place.” Dr. Sander began writing op-eds in the New York Times and Daily News discussing issues such as lost youth and the importance of preserving landmarks such as The Armory. He garnered some support from the public, but no money to make his dream a reality.

However, Dr. Sander’s cause was suddenly given a shot in the arm with a court ruling that limited the number of people that one homeless shelter could hold. The Armory was well over the limit, and a change was necessary. Meanwhile, Mayor David Dinkins was facing a fierce election challenge from Rudy Giuliani that he would ultimately lose. Dinkins had made homeless policy a centerpiece of his time in City Hall, and he looked to leave a lasting legacy. The mayor saw Dr. Sander as a dedicated and reliable potential partner, which enabled him to convince the administration to give him the keys to The Armory.

“Goodbye and good luck,” he was told.

Dr. Sander’s vision for the renovation went far beyond track and field competitions. Between track meets, he wanted to provide a heavily used practice facility, along with academic support for ambitious students.

“The programs focus around a premier athletics and track and field program, but extend far beyond that area,” Dr. Sander said at the time. “We want to motivate and stimulate students, and broaden their horizons. We have academic programs that complement their regular education with a goal to getting them into college.”

Restoring the building was never going to be easy. Dr. Sander immediately began lobbying both the city government and corporate sponsors to help fund the renovation of the building, an effort that would ultimately raise 25 million dollars. He was able to secure New Balance as a primary sponsor early on, which was instrumental to lifting the project off the ground. Furthermore, he was able to gain the support of local politicians, which was instrumental in building trust and gaining funds.

The renovation came together quickly at this point. With a number of reputable people and organizations providing funding, the restoration of the facility was underway. The track reopened in late 1993 with a new, modern surface as opposed to the old, wooden boards. Steel beams, and huge windows also provided natural light. A new, smaller homeless shelter was constructed on 168th Street that to this day provides its occupants with a much higher standard of living than they had inside The Armory.

The rest, as they say, is history. Track and field competition returned to The Armory after a seven-year hiatus, and the renovation of the building had a profound impact on the entire Washington Heights neighborhood. High school and college meets flocked to The Armory in greater numbers than ever before, and the 2012 acquisition of the Millrose Games put the facility on the map worldwide. The presence of thousands of young athletes streaming into the area at once has provided wholesome opportunities for new businesses to grow and invest. It may seem like The Armory returned to being the center of American indoor track and field overnight, but it took a man of extraordinary vision and competence to transform the facility from what it had been before.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Dr. Sander’s quest to restore The Armory was just how firmly he believed in bettering the community while rebuilding the track facility of his youth. In addition to the upgraded homeless shelter that remains integrated with The Armory, Dr. Sander matched word to action by starting Armory College Prep, a program that works with public middle and high school students from New York City, and helps to send nearly all of them to four-year colleges.

Now a year and a half after Dr. Sander’s unexpected passing, we here at The Armory continue to be touched and inspired by the life he lived and the values he embodied. The Armory Foundation carries on Dr. Sander’s legacy to this day by providing both a superlative indoor track experience and valuable services to the surrounding community and city.

In order to continue making Dr. Sander’s dream a reality, The Armory Foundation recently established a permanent fund in his name to help support all the work we do at The Armory, both on the track and in the classroom. We are extremely proud to announce that we have secured contributions from every single employee of The Armory Foundation, along with each member of the Board of Directors. Join us and be part of The Armory Family by donating to the Dr. Sander Legacy Fund.

To make an online donation to the Dr. Sander Legacy Fund click here.