The Race That Tried to Heal a New York Neighborhood
How America’s “#1 Runners’ Restaurant” helped bring a community and its police force closer together
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In the summer of 1992, an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic named José “Kiko” García was killed by a police officer in Washington Heights, the stretch of upper Manhattan which back then had an unenviable reputation of being the “most murderous neighborhood” in New York City. Subsequent peaceful protests led by city councilman Guillermo Linares eventually devolved into days of rioting. According to The New York Times, the conflagration resulted in 139 arrests, 14 building fires, and 121 damaged vehicles, as several businesses in Washington Heights closed up shop to wait out the storm.
One establishment that did not close, however, was Coogan’s—an Irish pub on the corner of 169th Street and Broadway that would eventually dub itself the nation’s #1 Runners’ Restaurant, before going out of business for COVID-related reasons earlier this year. In 1992, instead of boarding up its windows, the bar responded to the uprising by remaining open for 24 hours. This was at turns both a tactical decision—co-owner Peter Walsh says that closing would have made the bar a target for vandalism—and a peacemaking gambit.
“We were jammed. In one room would be all the cops and another room would be all the rioters,” Walsh recalls. As the story goes, he introduced Linares, who was the first Dominican-born person to be elected to public office in New York City, to Nicholas Estavillo, the commanding officer of the 34th precinct. The two men came to an agreement in Coogan’s back room. According to Walsh, the riots ended the next day. (In an interview with the New York Public Library, Estavillo offers a less rose-colored account where an influx of cops from other precincts ultimately helped the 34th “clamp down” the unrest.)
At a moment when there have been calls for a radical restructuring (not to say dismantling) of police departments across the country, such accounts of cop-community conflict resolution might come off as suspiciously utopian. But one could probably say the same of Coogan’s itself, an establishment that managed to embody an ideal of diversity long before it became a corporate buzzword. The bar and restaurant was frequented both by the working class and members of the political elite. White cops. Dominican families. Doctors. Journalists. Students. Down-and-outers.
Coogan’s was also a sports bar dedicated to running, of all things. The allegiance initially stemmed from the fact that it shared a city block with the Armory, the nation’s premiere indoor track avenue. Then, in 1998, the bar founded what would become one of New York City’s most beloved road races: the Coogan’s Salsa, Blues, and Shamrocks 5K. As the name implies, the event was intended to project the bar’s cultural pluralism out into the streets, and music was central to the mission; bands from the neighborhood lined the (famously hilly) course to serenade runners. It was a novel concept at the time.
“As crazy as Peter was, he always had great ideas,” says Louis Vazquez, who served as race director for the Coogan’s 5K. “It was seven o’clock in the morning, and out came the mariachi bands and bagpipers. People on Fort Washington Avenue were opening up their windows and wondering what was going on. Soon we had people from all over New York City coming to Washington Heights to run.”
In addition to the music, part of the impetus for the event was to improve the relationship between the people of Washington Heights and the police at a time when the neighborhood was one of the roughest in the country. The 5K was preceded by kid’s races that already had hundreds of participants in the first year. Every child who ran got a medal, presented by local police officers and firemen. It sounds like an idealized fantasy of small-town America. Except this was Washington Heights in the nineties.
According to longtime community activist Dave “Coach Dave” Crenshaw, the Coogan’s 5K was the “best sports activity” ever to come to Washington Heights and the first to actively try to forge a connection between the neighborhood and local law enforcement.
“We had neighborhood kids running races who got awards from officers who normally they were at war with,” says Crenshaw, who runs a program called the Uptown Team Dreamers for underserved youth. “And they didn’t give out little tiny medals, either. They gave out hunks! They gave out medals that you could use as a weapon if you had to.”
Walsh, for his part, maintains that the idea of having cops give medals to the kids was intended to have an intergenerational effect.
“It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, how do I indoctrinate a child?’ It was about establishing some kind of connection with the kids’ parents, who were, in a sense, giving their permission that this event take place,” Walsh says.
Of course, no one was under any illusion that having cops hand out prizes one day of the year was going to transform the neighborhood into a paragon of urban harmony. But just the fact that the Coogan’s 5K succeeded in manufacturing a benevolent interaction between cops and civilians seems to have been an achievement at the time. The bar had a reputation as neutral territory, as The New York Times put it, and the race was effectively an extension of its unique brand of diplomacy.
“The kids were asking to take pictures with the police officers,” Vasquez told me. “When the race first started, that was unheard of. Nobody wanted to be anywhere near a police officer.”
As Crenshaw puts it, “This was huge for a lot of kids who’d never had a good interaction with an officer before.”
Many of the kids in Crenshaw’s program were also part of the race organizing committee. The night before the event, which took place on the first Sunday in March, the Uptown Dreamers would often sleep over inside the Armory so they could be up before dawn to take on the various logistical tasks of a race—which, when you counted the peewee races, was among the largest in New York City. While the idea of a bunch of local kids setting up aid stations and slicing fruit might sound fairly trivial, Crenshaw maintains that this by-the-community-for-the-community aspect gave the people of Washington Heights a sense of ownership. “We used to love this race so much,” he says. It was the one Sunday of the year where his mother, who “was huge in the community,” would go to church late.
Coogan’s officially stopped sponsoring the 5K in 2012. These days the race, now officially called the NYRR Washington Heights Salsa, Blues, and Shamrocks 5K, is run by the New York Road Runners, who had partnered with the bar in years past. Considering the event’s legacy, there’s some irony in the fact that the reason Coogan’s ultimately stepped away was that the NYPD began charging around $45,000 for traffic control and other costs. It was nothing personal: the department had recently begun billing the organizers of the New York City Marathon for its services (a move which caused the price of entering the race to increase almost 40 percent in a single year), and needed to be consistent.
Although the race retains some of its spirit, the consensus among many old-timers—some of whom still stubbornly refer to it as Coogan’s—is that the community element has been watered down. Part of this can probably be chalked up to the gloss of nostalgia, but there are noticeable differences. There are fewer bands than there used to be. The race T-shirts have become more generic. These days, the kids are awarded ribbons. No more hunks.
“It lost its heart,” says Rick Pascarella, the president of the once mighty Warren Street running club. “It was an event put on by a local establishment for the local community, broadly speaking. And immediately the Road Runners turned it into another business.” (In fairness, if the Road Runners hadn’t taken it over, the race would likely have ceased to exist.)
As for the race’s mediating influence between the police and the people of Washington Heights, the question is muddied somewhat by the fact that the neighborhood itself has changed. Crime is down and rent is up. Indeed, Coogan’s itself was famously nearly shut down in 2018 after the New York Presbyterian Hospital tried to raise the monthly rent by $40,000. The bar survived, only to succumb to the pandemic in late March. Perhaps now more than ever, the closure represents an incalculable loss.
“With Coogan’s closed, cops and community relationships are going to suffer,” Crenshaw says. “A whole lot more got done in Coogan’s than in any precinct house or community meeting. Because when you break bread and when you open up a bottle with someone—that’s when you really get to know who’s who.”