Across the street from Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and around the corner from the 168th street MTA stop, is a big brick building. It has stood there for more than half a century. The chips in the walls show its age. Rusting metal bars cover the windows, while banners adorned with winged feet flutter above. Step inside and you’ll hear the roar of a crowd echoing through marble hallways. You’ll catch glimpses of high school students in classrooms, shoulders hunched over SAT prep textbooks. Go up one flight of stairs and you’ll walk out into a massive indoor track surrounded by stands that can fit thousands with a Jumbotron rivaling that of any basketball arena hanging from above.
This is The Armory. Home to a historic track in track and field and a pillar of the Washington Heights neighborhood. It has been utilized many different ways since it was built in the early 1900s. Naturally it began as an armory, home to the Army Engineering Corps. Then it became a homeless shelter during the New York City homelessness crisis later in the 20th century and fell into disrepair. Finally, Dr. Norbert Sander, the only man from NYC to win the New York City Marathon, was at the forefront of its refurbishment in an effort to transform it into a renowned track and field institution.
He succeeded on that front, but since he passed in 2017, it has become so much more. The Armory still bustles with track meets from November through April. Olympic athletes have roamed the halls. Hundreds of records have been set in the building. But those who head The Armory Foundation hope to serve the community and the young athletes who walk through those doors.
Rita Finkel and Jonathan Schindel are the co-presidents of The Armory Foundation. Named to their positions seven years ago, they make decisions in tandem with their board of directors on the present and future of The Armory. Primarily, though, they spend their days fundraising. They have a partnership with Nike and many corporate sponsorships. They utilize the space they have to host events like Sumo and Sushi for earned income. The money they raise doesn’t all go to upkeep of the legendary track, as you might guess. Instead, much of it will go to the other programs The Armory runs to help the under-resourced of all ages.
The primary example is The Armory’s College Prep Program. It offers any student the opportunity to receive SAT prep, personalized college application assistance, and college visits to a degree that may be commonplace at well-funded public and private schools, but not so much for NYC public schools. It’s not a test-in program. Anybody is welcome. And the way they arrive is often through track and field.
“If this was Madison Square Garden and we opened up MSG to any kid who wanted to come play basketball, it would be mobbed,” Jonathan told The Big Lead. “And if MSG said, you know what, if you’re interested in sticking around after you’re done playing ball, we can help you academically and with college. That’s the model, even if they don’t do that.
“The kids want to be here to run, jump, and throw. They’re all not going to spend a gazillion extra hours on academics. But some subset of them are that hungry and they do want to do that. We’re here to provide that for him and to encourage them to be part of that. If you just want to come here and run, jump, and throw, that’s fine. If you want to run, jump, and throw, and use our help to get into college, we’re here to provide as much support as the kids want.”
Once the students are enrolled, the goal is not to simply get them into any college that will have them. It’s about finding the right place. Clayton Harding, Director of College Counseling, said that of all the former College Prep participants currently enrolled in college, 20 percent are at a school they hadn’t heard of before going to The Armory. In the last seven years, every single senior who took part in The Armory College Prep program was accepted to a four-year college. A 100 percent success rate.
Astia and Bariki Innis are two exemplars of the College Prep program. Astia, 26, is a third-year student at Tufts University School of Medicine. Bariki, 24, is a fixed income specialist at JP Morgan. Both attended Williams College for undergrad. They emigrated from Montego Bay, Jamaica to the Bronx 10 years ago and signed up for their high school’s track and field program, where their coach suggested they look into The Armory’s other offerings.
The siblings don’t know if they would have made it this far without The Armory pushing them as far as they could go.
“I look back at it and think about where I’d be without The Armory and I don’t think I’d be here,” Bariki said. “Our high school wasn’t doing a lot of these things to get us to the best college. The best liberal arts colleges. They were trying to get us into state schools and SUNYs and CUNYs and there’s nothing wrong with that, but is it your full potential? The…