For black families from Baltimore to Atlanta, the four-block hamlet of Atlantic Beach was once the summer hot spot. In fact, it was the only spot. During the days of segregation, families came from all over the coast to the lone place in this region where black residents could relax on sugary sands and taste the saltiness of the ocean.
The annual black biker rally, which Young describes as “the second best thing, right after Christmas,” started in Atlantic Beach more than three decades ago. Back then, it was a small, family-friendly event that provided an alternative to the overwhelmingly white Harley-Davidson Week in neighboring Myrtle Beach.
But the lure of the Atlantic Beach Bikefest could not be contained. Hundreds of thousands flocked to the fest, and it began to spill into a string of seaside towns and cities known as the Grand Strand, transforming the event into a tawdry beach bacchanal.
“You’re gonna see some things,” Young, a brawny 42-year-old Prince George’s County firefighter, advised “A-Jay,” one of the youngest members of his club. Sweet bikes. Hot girls. Wild parties.
Most of those things won’t be in Atlantic Beach. While the bikefest remains the town’s biggest event of the summer, it also reveals just how much has been lost.
Riders sleep in other cities’ hotels. They dine in other cities’ restaurants. They make memories on other beaches, while Atlantic Beach’s significance slips away.
As neighboring towns were annexed into North Myrtle Beach to widen its tax base and woo developers, Atlantic Beach decided to stand alone, like it always had.
“We wanted to preserve our story,” said Retha Pierce, the town’s outgoing mayor. “But we couldn’t get developers. Everyone else did.”
Now a fence separates her community from a pink, 18-floor resort with rooms for $350 a night. On the other side are wooden townhouses, filled to capacity. Between those borders are Atlantic Beach’s barren sands and scraggly brush, hosting little more than history.
“What we want most from the weekend is the chance for a homecoming,’’ Pierce said. “There is still a chance for them to remember our beach, the Black Pearl.”
As this year’s bikefest gathered momentum in the days before Memorial Day, the city of Atlantic Beach was relatively quiet, with just a spattering of sport bikes rolling through. One biker stopped in front of a boarded-up ranch home and asked: “Where is everyone?”
Even Young, who appreciates what Atlantic Beach represents, wasn’t sure he’d get over to the town. There just wasn’t enough to do there.