Credit: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

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All Darren Harper wants to do is get some skateboarding in before dark. Normally, Freedom Plaza would be teeming with skaters of all shapes, sizes, and skills, but the U.S. Park Police, which administers the site, has been enforcing the no-skating rule today. Most of the skaters have either gone home or scattered to the smaller spots around downtown.

Harper ventures onto the plaza and pushes around. He slaps down an ollie, launching himself into the air by kicking down on the tail of the board, and then takes a running start for a couple of tricks along a ledge. One of the kids spots a tall police officer approaching on a bicycle. The kids frantically stash their boards in a trash can, but Harper just keeps skating.

“I don’t run,” Harper, 25, explains. “I’m a grown man. And it’s not like I got an eight-ball in my pocket or something. I got a skateboard.”

“Sorry,” the officer says, “but you can’t skate here today.”

Harper nods and steps off his board. He heads to the U.S. Courthouse on Constitution Avenue, which he figures he’ll have to himself. He’s right: Someone before him has even set up a bicycle rack at the base of the fountain to form an improvised sliding rail.

Harper takes off his jacket, steps on his board, and pops a big ollie. He lands, pushes the ground once for speed, and then ollies up into a wheelie (a trick called a “manual”) on the terraced steps of the fountain’s base. On his return runs, he mirrors the same tricks while riding “switch,” or with his normally back foot forward in his stance. Like a basketball player with a highly developed off hand, ambidexterity on a board is a mark of a great skater. “That’s both ways,” he says after a switch manual, flashing his first grin of the afternoon. “I’m versatile with it.”

Just as he decides to work the rail, two special security officers wearing blue blazers and badges emerge from the courthouse. Both have thick, ex-cop builds. Neither appears to want an autograph.

“Hey!” the older one shouts from the doorway. “You can’t do that.”

Harper stares at him and pops an insolent ollie. The guards hustle down the steps to the fountain.

The guard puts his nose inches from Harper’s face and barks, “You hard of hearing?”

Harper fixes him with a withering gaze. “No, I’m not hard of hearing,” he says calmly. “But I can’t hear you when I’m skating.”

“Look, you can’t be here,” the younger guard tells Harper. “And you’re gonna put that bike rack back where it was.”

Harper sneers. “Man, I’m just out here expressing myself,” he says. “I ain’t defacing nothing. I’m just riding the flats. Y’all got nothing better to do?”

“You got to go,” the guard says, sticking a finger in Harper’s face. “And you ain’t putting up no bike rack on the steps.”

Harper turns his head and spits. “I ain’t moving shit,” he says, locking eyes with the guard. “You seen me. I didn’t touch it, and I ain’t touching it.”

“You wanna go to jail?” the guard says.

“The fuck you talking about, jail,” Harper shoots back. “For what? I’m just skating.”

“Tell your story while you walk, son.”

Just a few years ago, Harper was what would generously be described as at-risk. “Everything those rappers rap about, I lived,” he says.(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Harper whirls and bumps chests with both guards. “Man, I ain’t no son,” Harper says. “I’m a grown man, nigga.”

“Southeast for life!” Harper yells. “Alabama Avenue! That’s real, nigga. You ask about me.”

The guards holler right back at Harper, who decides it’s not worth sticking around. He disengages, grabs his stuff, and walks away. Behind Harper, the two guards raise their arms in a triumphant what’s up now? and taunt him. “Thirty-five years on the force,” the older one says. “NYC!” shouts the other.

“Yeah, well, comb your Jheri curl,” Harper calls over his shoulder to the young guard. To the older one, he shouts, “Those light-skinned niggas went out a long time ago!”

But as he rolls back along Constitution toward the Archives, Harper’s smile fades. “I hate when people address me wrong,” he explains. “The guy at [Freedom Plaza], his tone, he was the nicest, coolest dude. Them dudes, they mad at something. Like, ‘Let’s just go fuck with this dude.’ ”

To the guards, Harper probably looked like your average thugged-out skatepunk. Actually, he is a way-above-average thugged-out skatepunk, which explains why he took their behavior as such an affront. Thanks to a handful of top-shelf sponsors that pay him to promote their brands, skateboarding is more than a pastime for him—it’s his job. What’s more, he’s on the verge of becoming skateboarding’s next superstar.

As incongruent as it seems for Harper—with his baggy jeans, oversize T-shirt, white-gold Jesus pieces, and braids—to have a chance to become the face of skateboarding, consider how unlikely it was for him to get this far in the first place. He grew up in Southeast. Both of his parents had drug problems, and his father was in and out of jail throughout his childhood. While skaters in Rockville and Arlington were hitting up their fathers for gas money, Harper shoplifted groceries so his family could eat. Just a few years ago, Harper was what would generously be described as at-risk. He ran wild in the streets, selling drugs, fighting, stealing. He carried a gun when he answered the door. “Everything those rappers rap about, I lived,” he says.

“You have to be marketable, whether you like it or not. Now, you can be really good, but if you don’t have any personality, it doesn’t matter.” —Chris Hall(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Whenever someone got evicted in the Savannah Terrace neighborhood of Southeast, a pile of belongings would appear on the sidewalk. One afternoon, a 10-year-old Harper found a yellow plastic skateboard lying among some furniture. Harper and the board immediately became inseparable. Before he learned any tricks or could even ride very well, Harper sat or kneeled on it and zoomed down the short hills of his neighborhood.

When Harper was 12, he cruised down to another part of the neighborhood with his buddies one day to look for a friend. The friend wasn’t home, and as they started back up the hill, they ran into a group of guys who had a beef with them. Harper had his eyes on the sidewalk and didn’t notice the rest of his friends running away. When he lifted his head, he saw them at the top of the hill, gesticulating wildly. Harper turned around and saw a pack of older boys bearing down on him. His friends screamed for him to drop his board and run. But Harper wouldn’t leave it behind, and when the boys caught him, he held the board in front of him like a Scottish claymore.

“What are you gonna do,” the lead bully taunted, “hit me with that?”

Harper didn’t. The boy punched him, the rest piled on, and Harper took his beating. When they were finished, he ran back up the hill crying.

“But I kept the board,” he says with a laugh. “I guess this was maybe God telling me that I was going to be with this board forever.”

Not long after that, one of Harper’s friends’ mothers mentioned that she had seen people skating downtown, so Harper and his buddies began taking the bus to Freedom Plaza every weekend.

Catalyst Skateboards general manager Keir Johnson remembers seeing Harper with his yellow skateboard. It wasn’t the kind of board meant for tricks, but Harper would borrow an older skater’s board to mimic what he saw. Harper quickly picked up how to ollie. “Most kids would be very unsteady at first, just roll back and forth to try and get their legs under them, but he’d zoom off and throw tricks right away,” Johnson says.

The pros who skated Freedom Plaza took an interest in “Little Darren.” City legend Pepe Martinez and future mentor Chris Hall, among others, would show him new tricks and supply him with shoes and boards. Closer to Harper’s age was Stevie Williams, a Philadelphian who shared a rough upbringing and went on to become a star in his own right. But by the time Harper hit high school, he was the only one of his friends still skating—it wasn’t cool anymore.

The only skateboarders his neighbors knew of were the idiots making disastrous landings on America’s Funniest Home Videos. They made fun of him for indulging in a white sport and called him a white dude. Harper responded to the taunts by trying to defend his hobby, and when that didn’t work, he used his fists. “It’s stereotyping to say something of that nature,” he says. “I felt like it’s insulting. It’s not a white-boy sport. It’s an everybody sport.”

“Most kids would be very unsteady at first, just roll back and forth and get their legs under them. But he’d zoom off and throw tricks right away.” —Keir Johnson(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Though Harper, a gifted visual artist, gained admission to the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, he also had become known as a hard dude. With a reputation to keep, he couldn’t let on that he still enjoyed skating, and it got to the point where he wouldn’t hold his board while waiting for the bus. He’d hide his skate gear in a trash bag or take the trucks off, stash the deck in his backpack, and put it all back together once he got to Freedom Plaza. “It was almost like I was living this secret life,” he says. “I couldn’t be myself.”

“[Skateboarding] is not a white-boy sport. It’s an everybody sport.” —Darren Harper(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Living a double life became too much, and Harper eventually stopped skating. He went to school and made art. He came home and hung around on the block with the hustlers. But every so often, maybe a couple times a year, he’d get the itch and show up at Freedom Plaza, where he’d borrow a board and slap down a couple of tricks just to get the feeling in his legs again. Or he’d go to a bookstore and leaf through a skating magazine. “I really wished that it could’ve been fine and dandy, but that’s not where I grew up,” he says with a sigh. “It was just so hard, man.”

Harper’s art earned him a scholarship to the Maryland College of Art and Design, but he dropped out after a semester and started selling cocaine. He caught a felony cocaine distribution charge in 2001 but had it dismissed. He continued dealing to the point that he was eventually supplying other dealers. Trouble started finding him. There were gunfights and brawls and friends going to jail or turning on him. He explained all the good stuff—money and new cars—to his mother by saying he had a gambling problem.

Right about the same time Harper walked away from skating, the X Games debuted, a skateboarding-centered event that turned what had been a ripple into a 30-foot curler of popularity. Tony Hawk, who until then had been fairly broke, went supernova and got his own video game. Advertisers went crazy, and marketers mined new areas for “penetration” and “synergy,” one of which was hip-hop. Harper finally collided with skateboarding’s newfound interest in urban culture one night when he went to a downtown bookstore and picked up a skate magazine. To his surprise, he found his old skate buddy Stevie Williams in it, flashing bling, talking about his cars. “I’m like, Wow, from skating?” he recalls. “Damn, if they did it, I can do it.”

Though he kept dealing, he began cutting off sales early to catch a late skate session at Freedom Plaza. That arrangement continued until September 2002, when he was approached by a security guard while skating in front of the World Bank.

Harper didn’t like the way the guard was talking to him, puffing up like Harper was just some wannabe from Virginia or Maryland. “It’s always a battle, because they think skaters don’t know anything about the D.C. streets,” Harper says. “They assume we’re just a bunch of rich kids from V-A. That’s my quarrel.”

Harper told the guard, “You talking to the wrong dude.”

Harper beat the guard so badly that he was later admitted to the hospital. In a lapse of street smarts, he returned to the same place the next day and bragged to another set of guards that he had already punished one of them and that he had something for the rest of them, too. But once one of the guards flagged down a D.C. police officer, Harper bolted. He was eventually caught in an underground parking garage and arrested.

Harper faced 30 years of prison time, but pleaded down to a year of probation, anger-management counseling, and community service. He realized that if he got into any more trouble, he’d be in for serious time. He went out to San Francisco and stayed with a friend he knew from Freedom Park for a few weeks to decompress. He also decided it was time for a change. “There was no turning back,” says Harper. “I felt like it was life or death. It was either learn these tricks, get back into your swagger on your skateboard, or get ready to go back and get killed or end up in the slammer.”

Harper moved out of his neighborhood, to another part of Southeast (he currently lives in Prince George’s County), and traded in his drugs for a job at Tower Records as a store artist. He made a list of everything he needed to do in order to turn pro. Yet it was hard to carve out time for skating while toiling for relative pennies at a 9 to 5, and he constantly thought about dealing again. He would take trips back to his old haunts to check if the customers were still there, just to see if it would be possible to juggle hustling and skating again. “There were times when I couldn’t sleep,” Harper says. “If someone didn’t rescue me, I was going back to the streets.”

“It was skate or die, basically,” he says. “Skate or die.”

Freedom Plaza, called Pulaski Park by old-timers, is the Mecca of the D.C. skate scene. The marble benches and ledges bear the scars of years of skaters grinding their hardware on them. There is also a number of celebrated smaller spots around downtown—the “golden rail” at Metro Center, sliding down which is a rite of passage for area skaters, has appeared in countless photographs and films.

Just as a keen ear can distinguish between Boston, New York, and Philadelphia natives, East Coast skaters can watch the way a skater handles his board and tell within moments where he’s from. D.C.’s cachet is in aggressive street skaters, and the city hit its zenith in the late 1990s, when pros like Brian Tucci, Chris Hall, and Pepe Martinez were in their primes. Martinez was the iconic D.C. skater. When he skated, the ground seemed to liquefy under his board, and he carved over it with the grace of a surfer. Martinez died in 2003 from a brain aneurysm. Historically, however, most of the pros who called Freedom Plaza home were actually from the Maryland or Virginia suburbs.

“That kills me,” Harper says. “I hate that. You got people getting tattoos, wanting to look D.C. so bad. Look, you’re not [from] here, you never lived here, you never been to the ghetto. These guys move to Maryland or V-A, say they’re from D.C. It’s not all the same to me. As someone born and raised here all his life, I feel like they just use our city for a little bit of fame.”

A little bit of fame is about what Harper has right now. Although a breakthrough could be just around the corner, Harper currently remains an “amateur” in the skating world hierarchy.

There are three levels of sponsorships, all of which have their own gradations. First is the “flow” rider, usually a young rider who occasionally gets free equipment, clothes, and shoes from skate-gear companies. Next is the amateur, who receives regular product shipments (typically once a month), a salary (ranging from $200 to $1,200 per month), and participates in a company’s promotional tours (during which his expenses are covered and he receives a per diem). Smart amateurs pile up as many different sponsors as they can, and companies often have incentive programs that pay riders for each photograph they can score while wearing or using their gear. Magazine cover shots are worth upward of $2,500, and since skaters are usually decked out in an assortment of brands, each of those companies pays for the exposure.

Each step up the ladder, the sponsor releases increasingly larger doses of the skater to the public to see if he can sell its products. But becoming a professional, as defined by the skateboarding industry, remains an anointment rather than a right earned by ability. The decision lies with each board company’s manager. Technically, he can turn anyone pro, but he usually waits until he determines the rider is “ready”—an unscientific formula that depends largely on the amount of coverage the skater has generated. The mark of a professional skater is having his own skateboard, though pros often get their own signature clothing lines or shoes, too. A typical pro earns $1,000 to $2,500 per month from the board company and also collects royalties on his boards. Some teams even have health plans for their riders.

Skateboarding has come a long way since the days of the Z-boys of Dogtown, or even when Tony Hawk was just some guy doing skate demos in parking lots. Before, all you had to do in order to “make it”—if that mattered to you—was either win a bunch of competitions or have cool tricks that other people weren’t doing.

Now, many of the most important companies—say, Element, or DC Shoes—are owned by publicly traded conglomerates. This second, corporate iteration of skating shares more in common with the music industry than sports, including its paradoxes. As with musicians, marketability plays as important a role in a skater’s success as his skill. Instead of proving themselves in competitions, amateurs become pros by completing the publicity circuit. Once they get interviews in the top skateboarding magazines and appear in enough videos, and as long as they continue to skate well, there’s really no other option for their board company than to turn them pro. “You have to be marketable, whether you like it or not,” says Hall, 35, a former pro with Element, “which wasn’t even thought about when I was doing it. Now, you can be really good, but if you don’t have any personality, it doesn’t matter. Money’s really changed it.”

Hall had known for years that Harper had both the ability and charisma to satisfy skateboarding’s success formula, so when Harper made his return to Freedom Plaza, he was eager to help. He coached Harper through new tricks and shot video clips of Harper that he could send out to companies. One of the video projects evolved into a full-blown skateboard film, Get Familiar, which was released on DVD this fall. “If they’re into Stevie Williams and those guys right now,” Hall told him, “they’re going to shit their pants when they see you.”

Even so, Harper had difficulty gaining traction. He was on the East Coast, far away from the California nexus of the skateboarding industry. He certainly didn’t fit the punk profile that companies sought, and being black didn’t help. Meanwhile, scores of white kids in baggy jeans and big coats imitating rappers pulled in sponsors. “It’s like they like the wannabes sometimes,” he says. “If you’re gonna tap into the market, at least have someone up your sleeve who can say they’ve been down that road. I been there, I been on the street. You can’t deny my credibility.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“It’s weird, man,” he says. “I tell these kids, man, it’s not even about how good you are. Sometimes it’s just about connections.”

Eventually, companies began sending Harper their products, and he scored appearances in small skateboard magazines. Then, in 2005, Hall arranged a meeting with Element. Harper joined Element as a sponsored skater, but he never got comfortable with the arrangement. He kept hearing from industry insiders that he wasn’t a good fit for the company, and it was unclear just what Element expected from him. After a few months, he got a call from his team manager, who told him that he didn’t think the relationship was going to work out.

When Harper hung up, his first instinct was to get violent. He even flew out to Los Angeles with the intention of “doing something.” Element’s founder got ahold of Harper first, however, and apologized for the way things shook out. The team manager also called Harper to make sure they were parting on good terms.

“You saved yourself from a brawling,” Harper told him. (Element did not respond to numerous phone calls for comment.)

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Harper suspects that the company caved to fears that he might never have the ghetto taken out of him. “The problem with the industry is, these guys, they see somebody like me, and they’re like, this guy’s a liability,” he says. “They wonder if he’s going to flip out on tour, if he’s going to relapse: He’s from the streets. We aren’t gonna be able to tame him. I understand that, but you gotta give someone a chance.”

Harper does admit to being part of the new breed of skateboarders for whom the sport is as much a business as it is a passion. “I hate it when people tell me just to have fun,” he says. “[Skating] does free my mind when I’m stressed, and it’s the best thing in the world to just go out here and ride my board, do a new trick, so I do got the love for it. But at the same time, it’s a job. You have to take it seriously.”

“That don’t make any sense, the old-school thinking,” he says of the establishment idea that skaters should skate only because they love it. “They had it so they didn’t really need money to survive, because they lived with their parents, and they already had all these things. The black kids in the neighborhood, you can’t tell them to have fun. They’re trying to get out.”

“It’s not ‘fun’ for me,” Harper continues. “It hasn’t been ‘fun’ for me since I was 14 and just messing around.”

A few months before Element broke up with Harper, Hall took him out to San Diego for a trade show, a must-do for mingling, networking, and collecting sponsors. They wandered by the Famous Stars and Straps booth, a BMX and motocross clothing company with the tatted-up, desert-rat vibe of its owner, former Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker. Harper wandered in and met Barker and other managers.

“I don’t think they had any idea who I was,” Harper recalls. “They probably thought I was some rapper or shit and Chris was my bodyguard.”

It turned out that FSAS was looking to break into skateboarding—it just needed the right skater. Harper and Barker hit it off, and within a month, FSAS offered Harper a contract, which included a generous monthly salary. Finally, Harper could quit his job at Tower Records. Harper is coy about how much he makes, but says he’s able to pay all his bills, take care of his children (he has two, who live with their mothers), and could sock away a little in savings “if I wanted to.”

“[Signing with FSAS] was better than anything that’s ever happened to me,” says Harper. “I was doing back flips. At last, I’ve found something.”

“Darren’s heart, determination, and drive never ceases to amaze,” says Felix Arguelles, a pro skateboarder who doubles as Harper’s team manager at FSAS. “He’s one of the most recognizable ams in the business, and it’s only just begun for him. As long as he doesn’t change the path he’s taking, the sky’s the limit.”

Harper’s contract with FSAS takes him out to Los Angeles once every couple months, and working for Barker brings the added perk of hanging with celebrities like Paul Wall, Kareem Campbell, and Paris Hilton. (“She gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek,” Harper says with an aw-shucks smile.) But as exciting as it is for a guy from Southeast to party with luminaries of rap, skating, and, um, acting, Harper’s loyalty to his hometown has helped him resist going Hollywood, literally.

At a certain point, however, he suspects he’ll eventually have to acquiesce. Edward Abbey can rail against the sprawling concrete heat islands of the New West all he wants, but they make for great skating, and most pros and aspiring pros can’t resist their lure. Since all the major companies are based there, that’s where the media remoras congregate, and publicity is a skater’s lifeblood. “[Staying in D.C.] holds me back in a lot of things,” Harper allows.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

If Harper does go west, he may have to make business trips out east. This fall, Harper got a call from his old friend Williams, who had started his own skateboard company, DGK (“Dirty Ghetto Kids”), in 2002. Harper had actually spoken with Williams about DGK a couple of years before, but didn’t have the résumé to back up his desire to get on the team. As sympathetic as Williams was to Harper’s struggle, he had to think about his business. “I waited for him to get his mind right, coming from the streets,” Williams says.

This time, Williams thought Harper was ready and signed him on as an amateur. He’s the only full-time East Coast skater on DGK, and Williams wants it to stay that way. Though Williams won’t give a timeline in terms of when Harper will become a pro, he says Harper controls his own destiny. “There’s levels to the game of turning pro,” he says, “but he’s on his way.”

A couple days after Christmas, Harper tools around Freedom Plaza with about a dozen other riders. Harper seems like just one of the guys, and no one is particularly obsequious toward him. Harper’s presence at Freedom Plaza extends beyond giving the kids a brush with celebrity; he’s also outfitted many of the young skaters in the park. It’s common for sponsored skaters to sell off or give away excess product, and the trunk of Harper’s Buick Park Avenue Ultra looks like a skate shop. “I see a lot of kids, I know their parents aren’t buying them $100 skateboards, so if I got it, I give it,” Harper says.

“He’s making it seem OK to be from an urban environment and be a skater,” says Nate Jelani, a 19-year-old from Northeast who picked up skating after he watched, yes, the X Games. “It’s not a bad thing anymore.”

Jelani’s friend, Brian, makes a face. “He’s making it OK for a black kid to be skating,” he tells Jelani. “Get to the point.”

At Freedom Plaza, Harper works manuals along the marble bench on the east end of the park and pulls off different variations of grinds on its edge. Between runs, Harper leans against a wall, chats with other skaters, or pops ollies. After one run he nonchalantly unleashes an enormous kick flip, slapping the board off the ground, flipping it in midair along its longitudinal axis with his toe, and then sticking the landing “on the bolts,” or with his feet placed directly atop his wheels.

On the board, Harper’s trademark is the height and power of his tricks, or “pop.” Just about anyone familiar with Harper gushes about how “big” his tricks are—he can make a simple ollie a breathtaking maneuver. From almost a standstill, Harper can bound over waist-high obstacles while many skaters have trouble going higher than their knees. And since the ollie is the foundation of just about every trick in a skater’s repertoire, all of Harper’s tricks tend to be bigger than his peers’.

Harper attributes this skill to having been always acrobatic and athletic, but instead of moving on to the next set of tricks—flips, grinds, and the like—as most boys do, he stuck with the ollie for two solid years. In his neighborhood, the intricacies of kick flips and manuals didn’t impress anybody, but when people saw him pop over a refrigerator box or clear a railing, that earned him props.

Despite his pop, Harper will never be mistaken for a stylist. He often appears to be wresting his board into place instead of using it as an extension of his body. Harper describes his style as “raw and uncut.” Others, who demand theatricality and flourish in tricks, think he’s a phony and a brute. A viewer of Get Familiar, a film that features several stars and devotes the coveted final sequence to Harper, complains on a skating Web site that the last part is supposed to go to the best skater. “His style is awful,” the viewer writes. “…he’s way too serious about his being a ‘gangsta’, he ain’t the new 50 cent…”

The Harper videos on YouTube get the same treatment. “I hate this guy,” one person comments. “He has FUCKING bad style! And he’s sketchy.. + His tricks aren’t great at all…How can he be pro!?”

That’s just skateboarding, says Tim Reardon, co-owner of Pitcrew Skateboard and Snowboard Shop in Frederick, Md., one of Harper’s sponsors. “There are so many different styles of skating that someone’s always going to hate on one,” he says. “But I bet they wouldn’t say it to [Harper’s] face.”

Even the neighborhood is slowly coming around on the skateboarding thing. “People sometimes call this little-kid shit, like you’re not supposed to be doing it once you get to a certain age,” Harper says. “But when they see I get paid for skateboarding, they start taking it seriously. They see the money and they’re like, ‘Shit, I’ll jump on a deck for that.’ ”

Harper recently returned to Savannah Terrace for a tour of his childhood neighborhood. On the way out to Alabama Avenue, he passes the house where he and his girlfriend lived during the height of his dealing days. He peers up to look for pockmarks in the brick, artifacts of a shootout he once had with a tweaked-out friend. He takes a spin around a parking lot where he used to show off the spoils of his recidivism. “It was one big crazy party,” he says. “I miss it. I ain’t gonna lie. But I know I can’t do it no more.”

He makes a final stop at a shopping plaza where he recognizes a buddy who just got out of jail. As he gets out of the car, Harper points to a twitchy man with gray hair coming out of a liquor store. He used to serve him drugs, he says. Harper says he rarely drinks and never does drugs. He’s witnessed their effects firsthand and as a skater has watched too many children of privilege smoke up their talent. “I never understood these guys who are good as shit and quit, like, ‘Oh, I’m not trying to get sponsored,’ ” he says. “Shit. How can you do that? Of course, it’s because of their situation, but, man…”

Even so, Harper allowed himself a little Patrón and Moët to celebrate on New Year’s Eve. “I feel 2007’s going to be my year,” he says. “There’s definitely going to be big things.”

Then he rang in the new year the way he always has in the neighborhood: shooting off his guns.