By Alexa Taylor, Stockton University
At three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, Atlantic City’s Sovereign Avenue skatepark, affectionately nicknamed “Back Sov,” truly comes to life. Walking his dog around the park, Zach Katzen watches as dozens of children flood down the street after school dismissal, racing to the skate ramps with boards in hand.
Katzen, program director of the Atlantic City Arts Foundation and one of the prime movers behind Back Sov’s installation, visits its site overlooking the Atlantic City bay daily. Katzen is responsible for monitoring the park’s activity and keeping the grounds clean.
“I love the community, I always have,” says Katzen. “These kids like to skate, and deserve to have a place solidified for them.”
His two partners, Jason Forslund, 32, and Jason Klotz, 31, also serve as the park’s representatives. Together, the three embody the entity “Skate AC,” a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the community of Atlantic City through its public skatepark.
Forslund and Klotz, two Atlantic City locals and skate-enthusiasts, became advocates for the building of a park almost a decade ago. Katzen joined his friends on the project in 2017.
“I really felt like this place, with a proper skatepark, could be the East Coast’s Venice Beach, and it starts with something like a generational skatepark,” says Forslund, now a father of two. “Back Sov is a promise to the kids of Atlantic City, and I hope that it’s the very first one of many.”
After reading an ad that encouraged Atlantic City residents to get involved with their community, Forslund began attending NJ Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) meetings in 2010 to propose his ideas of building Atlantic City’s first public skatepark.
“I was often the youngest person there,” says Forslund. “One day I stood up, introduced myself and said, ‘I really love Atlantic City, and I would love to see a skatepark here.’ They were all kind of perplexed. At first, they kind of just blew me off, but I just kept coming.”
Klotz, who had moved from Atlantic City to California, returned back to the island in 2011 when he heard about the headway Forslund was making on the proposal.
“A park on the island was always my dream,” says Klotz, who had run out of spots to skateboard in Atlantic City by age sixteen, due to illegalities. “I heard Jason Forslund was stirring up the idea of a skatepark in AC and I wanted to get involved.”
Once the two got the plan for the park on a docket, the NJ CRDA voted their favor. But for every step made that seemed closer to having the skatepark built, there were twice as many hurdles standing in their way.
“I saw the obstacles my friends were facing while interacting with the government,” says Katzen. “The struggles have been showing that this park is something that is needed by the community, beating the preconceived notions that a lot of people have about skateboarding.”
Feeling discouraged, Forslund took a break from the project.
Klotz took over much of the responsibility, creating and funding the initial “Do-It-Yourself” park in 2014, and launching the GoFundMe campaign after the park was torn down by the city.
“We skated there a lot and would host events to donate boards, shirts, shoes, and wheels to local kids,” Klotz says. “One rainy night, the city’s public works team was ordered to tear the park down.”
However, Klotz decided to push forward. The GoFundMe page helped raise thousands of dollars for the rebuilding of the park, while also spreading awareness to the community about its building process.
“In 2017 the new mayor, Frank Gilliam, who is an advocate for recreation, let me know he would help us,” Klotz says. “He stood by his word.”
Meanwhile, Katzen, a partner to “48 Blocks AC” and the Atlantic City Arts Foundation, felt his connections within the community could also help drive the project over the finish line.
“I saw they were having a lot of trouble,” said Katzen. “I said, ‘Let me step in and try to help you.’”
Katzen decided to commit himself to the venture until the goal was achieved, joining the organization known today as “Skate AC.”
“All credit goes to the guys who did all the work leading up to it, starting the GoFundMe and getting the community’s support,” says Katzen. “I was just able to utilize my channels to get everybody together and show them that we’re all on the same page, that we’re all working towards the same goal to make the community better.”
Once the true goal of the project was finally realized, community leaders in Atlantic City started coming together to support the completion of the park.
Katzen’s friend, lawyer, Jacob Perskie, volunteered his time by writing a contract for the city to accept the skatepark as a donation. This allowed 5th Pocket Skateparks, a Pennsylvania-based corporation specializing in park design and construction, to come on board to generate the architectural plans for the park, which could be built after approval by officials.
Once the plans were approved, Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel and Casino not only donated to the project, but offered the 5th Pocket creators complimentary rooms for three weeks so they could have a place to stay while building the park.
City council members even stopped by the construction site to show their support.
“When we get to do projects like this, it pulls everybody together,” says Katzen. “There’s less of a divide between the city officials when you see the mayor come out here with Councilmen Fauntleroy and Cheng.”
“We were very lucky to have all the support of the community members,” Katzen says.
As the process was nearing its final stages, Skate AC felt their vision for the park would not be fully achieved without contributions from local artists. Fortunately, through Katzen’s involvement with the Atlantic City Arts Foundation, five artists became quickly available to help, fully willing to lend their talents by painting murals all over the newly-restored park.
One of the Arts Foundation artists, Christian Correa, says each painter was simply encouraged to express him or herself through their work . One of his murals, called “Stay Not Normal” was inspired by the creative process experienced by both skaters and artists.
“It kind of feels organic to the space,” says Correa. “I think it’s cool that this was a thought, and that this brings the arts and skate communities together.”
Katzen says the responses to the artwork have been so positive that the artists have come out in subsequent weeks to continue the murals. Eventually, they want to fill up the entire park with paint.
“While we were painting, people were here skating,” Katzen says. “They were asking, ‘Can we skate, is it dry yet?’… They’ve been waiting so many years to have this park that we didn’t want to make them wait any longer.”
So far, the impact of the park on the community has been far and wide. Before it was even finished, people were visiting Back Sov with their families and friends to see the progress that was made. Every afternoon, when school is dismissed, 20-30 kids run out to the park with skateboards and scooters, and even basketballs.
“When you give them a place that’s for them, they will respect it,” says Katzen. “They appreciate all the efforts.”
Forslund says that the skatepark was not created only for local skaters, but for the entire community. He believes that these types of projects help bring Atlantic City back to its roots as a family-oriented area.
Jason Thomas, 26, of Egg Harbor Township, brings his three-year-old son, Tristan, to Back Sov as often as he can.
“It’s so awesome that I can bring my son there to learn how to skate, while being around the great people that go there,” Thomas says. “This is something that is special for kids… it gives them a safe place to be.”
The Skate AC team plans to expand this venture by giving to the community more safe, public spaces that promote values of creativity and athleticism.
“There is a lot of potential in the formula we used to do this,” says Klotz. “The struggles it took hopefully inspire people to know you can make amazing things happen with love and your imagination.”
“Down the line, the idea is that this inspires everyday people,” says Katzen.
“Having a park like this, having a place that’s their own – that’s something that they can remember and pass down.”
This story was produced as part of Stories of Atlantic City, a collaborative project focused on telling restorative, untold stories about the city and its people. The project was produced in partnership with Free Press, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, ivoh (Images of Voices and Hope), Stockton University, Authentic City Partners and ThisIsAC co-founder Evan Sanchez, Grace & Glory Yoga and The Leadership Studio co-founder Alexandra Nunzi, Press of Atlantic City, Route 40, SJNtv and Breaking AC.
Stories of Atlantic City is funded with a grant from the NJ Community News and Information Fund at the Community Foundation of New Jersey, a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. To read other stories produced as part of the project, visit www.storiesofac.com.