Check out the half dozen young men on skateboards wheeling along a vertical ramp. Now check out the one with the 1970s styled ’stache. That’s Trenton skateboard activist Jake McNichol — one of several city advocates, community organizers, and alternate sports enthusiasts working to build year-round skate facilities in Trenton.
He does it by hosting a weekly skate jam open to the community. It’s called Freedom NJ.
“I realized that skating has this potential for underserved communities like Trenton, to give (young people) an outlet they may not get through school or through sports because that may not be what they’re into,” says McNichol during a recent interview.
Living and working in Trenton — he is press secretary for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority — the Ewing-raised McNichol says he started skateboarding when he was 12 and stayed with it.
Part of the appeal, he says, was “to learn how to face obstacles and face challenges, not as something that’s in our way, but as an opportunity to do something new and interesting.”
He continues with a personal example. “I spent a month every day out in front of my house trying to learn how to kick flip, and once I finally did it, I had this feeling of success,” he says.
The son of newspaper reporters for the Star-Ledger and Bergen Record, McNichol says he was in high school at the George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania, when he worked with Homefront and launched his first skateboarding activity, a skateboarding summer camp.
After he graduated from Washington University in Saint Louis in 2016, the economics and political science major went to New Brunswick and worked as a campaign organizer for the environmental group We Are Impact. He also got more involved with skating and became the New Jersey Ambassador for Boards for Bros, a nonprofit that promotes giving skateboards to kids unable to afford them and using boards as a means to promote self growth.
Then back in Trenton in 2017 to work with the political consulting firm FiftyOne percent, he helped organize events with the Boys and Girls Club in Trenton.
The reason was, he says, “to provide an alternative way to learn these life lessons about commitment and setting goals for yourself, while it also creates this really diverse, incredibly accepting community, and getting kids involved in that is really important as well.”
The newest challenge for McNichol and the skate community is working with the city and raising enough funds to open a permanent space. As he puts it, “The biggest need in the skate community is someplace to skate when it’s too dark, rainy, or cold to skate outside.”
That project, a safe indoor space to skateboard and that will potentially be a hub of a large skate community based in Trenton, is why McNichol and Freedom NJ are restarting their winter Saturday Skate Jams on November 2 at Roebling Wireworks.
The decision builds on last winter’s 12-event pilot that successfully attracted roughly 100 people per session.
To keep the wheels moving there have been other actions. The Trenton Circus Squad provided “pop up” skate events during its Wireworks performances during which Freedom NJ gave away more than 100 skateboards to Trenton kids.
Then there was Trenton “Go Skate Day” in June, another free skate event after Freedom NJ won a $10,000 grant from the Sheckler Foundation to increase its skateboard giveaways to 200 or more.
Putting his actions in perspective, McNichol says, “When I went away to college there were three or four indoor skate parks in the New Jersey/Philly area. When I came home there were none. They’d all shut down. And it wasn’t because they weren’t making money, just not as much as the people who owned them wanted to make. So that’s where I got the idea to start it as a non-profit that recognizes that this is really about place-making and making the kids feel comfortable to grow and develop those connections among people who might never meet each other otherwise.”
During the summer McNichol’s nonprofit, Freedom NJ, began partnering with Friends of Amtico Square, another community group of skaters and non-skaters from Trenton who are planning for an outdoor skate park here. Both organizations work together to run skate clinics at the Sonny Vereen Playground, which end this month for the season.
Friends of Amtico Square member, community organizer, and Trenton radio program host Jacque Howard provides some background. “Marc Leckington (longtime skateboarder and Trenton native) found the East Trenton location. I would see people skating in downtown Trenton all the time and none of them were from around here. So Marc filled me in on how it happens mainly at night and on weekends. He told me no one’s ever really tried to open a space. Well, that’s all I needed.”
Amtico Square is right along the lines of the Assunpink Redevelopment, making that area all protected green space. Leckington and Howard gave a presentation to the East Trenton Collaborative about the project. The area falls between the 100-year flood plain, so nothing structural can be built there. It abuts the old Taylor Pork Roll property. It makes sense to build a skate park.
“We want to emphasize those connections and build those bridges because we can bring together skaters, artists, and musicians,” McNichol says. “There are some old narratives and a lot of people don’t understand what’s happening here. This is not the Trenton that they think they know. This is a city that has a vibrant cultural scene, and there’s a lot of things happening here that are really great. We had people coming to Trenton from Philadelphia, from New York City on a Friday night. That doesn’t happen. That’s important for this city because we need to create opportunities for people to come here. There’s a music scene here. There’s an art scene here. There’s a skate scene here,” he says.
Partnership is how Freedom NJ and Friends of Amtico Square plan to finish this project of building permanent indoor and permanent outdoor skateparks and, in turn, this community needs to be as inclusive as possible.
According to Howard, the original conceptual design includes space for bike polo, “papi” soccer (small ball), and an area large enough to accommodate skaters of all levels.
Area skaters John Marks and Tom Hernandez are involved volunteers. John Bulloch, founder of Old School Skateboards who has built a partnership with the local Salvation Army, is also a regular. The local Dogwood Skate Shop and Trenton Photo Club are involved in Trenton’s skateboarding events as well.
“The city owns the land and we need to do some fundraisers for the money for the design. It’s slow moving, but we’ll be doing some cross promotion with Jake’s group Freedom NJ and our Friends of Amtico Square,” Howard says.
All feel that this could represent something exciting for Trenton and build on the awareness generated by some popular YouTube skate videos featuring famous skaters, such as Bordentown’s Ishod Wair, using the brink banks in Mill Hill Park.
Thinking about the return to the Roebling Wireworks in November, McNichol is also thinking ahead. “The city uses that building for all sorts of events, so it can’t be a permanent location for us. We want to be able to provide a place a kid can go on any day of the week, no matter what the weather is, that they can connect with another skateboarder. That’s the long-term goal. We’ll be the only public indoor skate park in the state of New Jersey.”
All he has to do is keep moving.
Saturday Skate Jams, Roebling Wireworks, 675 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton. Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m., through February.
For more information, visit www.FreedomNJ.org. Look for Friends of Amtico Square on Facebook.