Myrtle Beach Amnesia – It’s A Kind of Magic

Was Myrtle Beach ever really what you remember?

Both visitors and locals alike can be heard pining away for the Myrtle Beach that “used to be”. They speak passionately of how it was once a “family beach” and, understandably, always mention The Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park. With a faraway twinkle in their eyes they recount their vision of the beach’s former splendor as if they’re recalling a dream – and in some ways, I think they are. Without question Myrtle Beach has changed over the years. The crime has certainly gotten worse, but what about this bygone “family utopia” everyone is always going on about? To me, there seems to be a bit of amnesia when it comes to Myrtle Beach’s past.

It’s still a relatively young city. Unlike many of the other smaller towns along the Carolina coastline, it has no real history as anything other than a vacation destination.  Myrtle Beach is basically a toddler when compared to such historically significant cities as Charleston or even Conway. It is, and has always been, a place that people come to cut loose and have fun. Yet, people chronically lament the days of the “family beach” as if it were just a handful of years ago and then try to pinpoint the one thing that changed it.

Even now, as the City of Myrtle Beach contemplates using zoning to keep certain “undesirable businesses” off of Ocean Boulevard as a way to curtail crime, I’m left with the feeling of déjà vu. Those of you who, like myself, miss The Pavilion may be surprised to hear that about 20 years ago some people were actually blaming it for the areas general “unsavoriness”. I heard many opine that its presence facilitated a “carnie” atmosphere that made the area around The Pavilion desirable to drifters, grifters, cruisers, and businesses they referred to as “gotcha” shops. They viewed these people and businesses as “leeches”, with The Pavilion serving as their lifeblood. They stated, out loud, that if The Pavilion were gone all of this unsavoriness would go away as well. Can you imagine? Though this was not the reason for The Pavilion leaving, it’s been closed over 10 years now and plenty of “unsavoriness” remains.

There are also the two bike weeks that people often point to as the cause for the overall demise of the “family atmosphere”. They’ve been going on a long time. One started well over 30 years ago and the other has been going on since the 1940’s. “Bring back the month of May” you say? You should have gotten a load of the month of May in the 90’s. Plus, as much as some would like to think, a few weeks before the official start of summer did not destroy the “family beach”.

Have any of you reading this not had at least one Spring Break that could be classified as “self-mutilating”? Where did you spend it? Mine was on Ocean Boulevard in the 80’s. Speaking of the 80’s – is it just me or were there more strip clubs and pawn shops along the bypass back then – before the Air Force Base closed?

Whether you live or work in Myrtle Beach, can any of you recall a time in the past in which it wouldn’t have generally been wise to avoid the streets of Chester, Flagg, Yaupon, or Dunbar?

Ask any woman in the hospitality industry that has endured golf season at any point over the last 6 decades or so about our “family beach”. The money sure is great, but most of the golfers don’t act like they remember even having families while they’re here.

Remember poker machines? Just about every convenience store and bar had one and there were actual video poker parlors. Meanwhile, the “real” games were going on around poker tables in the back rooms of “family” businesses in the heart of Myrtle Beach.

Hell, even my great-grandmother wrote in her diary about going to New Town and “whooping it up like hogs at a trough” so I’m not exactly sure when Myrtle Beach, either officially or unofficially, possessed designation as a “family beach”. In fact, among the reasons much of my extended family left here decades ago were the challenges of raising children here.

Now, even with all this to refresh your recollection, I’ll bet every fiber of your being is still screaming, “Yeah, but I remember it being a family beach. I was here and that’s what it was, dammit!”

If you’re that rare bird that’s actually from here, what you’re probably remembering is its quaintness – the smallness that you once may have even derided. You’re remembering how the bypass was once lined with lush greenery and not the assault on the senses it is now. You long for those once quiet months between summer and spring, when the streets were empty and you had plenty of time to catch up with family and friends. Maybe you even looked forward to that first nip in the evening air that made your mouth water with the promise of collards and family oyster roasts. You remember when everyone seemed to know your name or your family, and everyone gave you a smile or at least a nod when you passed them by.  You even knew the people who got arrested or your parents did. They weren’t faceless criminals; they were people you knew from school or even church.

Many of the people who live here though, who call themselves “locals” and lament the loss of the “family beach”, aren’t actually from here. The first time they experienced Myrtle Beach was probably with their families as children, blissfully unaware of its seedy underbelly. It also could have been Spring Break, a golf trip, girls weekend, honeymoon, or a vacation with their own young families.  Regardless of what first brought them, they remembered a rip-roaring good time, maybe even the best times of their lives. When they wanted to recapture those times, they moved here – often without any clue of what it’s actually like to live in a tourist town outside of the one or two weeks a year they visited.

Those that decide to retire here seem to be the most shell-shocked. They probably cruised Ocean Boulevard as teenagers; partied their asses off in their 20’s; had their bachelor’s weekend here in their 30’s; golfed and groped the locals in their 40’s; took up Shagging in their 50’s; now they live here and want everyone to just shut the hell up.  Can you believe that playing music that can be heard outside of your vehicle on Ocean Boulevard will now cost you a C-note?

Here’s the thing about retirees – they don’t depend on our local economy to earn their living – they’ve already earned it. They will gladly tell you all about their fixed income and property taxes. Local politicians will not only listen to their ideas about businesses, events, and what should generally be allowed, they will enact laws to keep them happy. Why do they do this? Because while many working people don’t really have the time to wait until the end of city meetings to voice their concerns, retirees do. They have plenty of time to claim that the very things they once enjoyed are what’s now causing all of the city’s unsavoriness. It’s also important to note that retirees are also fantastic about actually showing up on Election Day and casting their votes.

Another form of newly minted “locals” that often find themselves here are the broken. Like the “Isle of Misfit Toys”, many are drawn back to Myrtle Beach to “fix” themselves or get a fresh start. Why here? Because it was the place of their fondest memories. When they asked themselves about the last time they felt truly happy, the magic of Myrtle Beach entered their minds. I once worked with a gentleman that moved here after his son died – It was the last place they were happy together. Others may be trying to recapture the early years of a now broken relationship or maybe life has kicked their ass and they just needed to find a beach to recover. Some come here to get their groove back, but many are caught off guard by the challenges of surviving the off-season. The addicted will often blame “this damn beach” for their latest bottom, forgetting they brought their brokenness with them to begin with. Still others are actually able to carve out a nice life for themselves and their families.

What about me? I didn’t spend all of my childhood here, but I am a native. I was born on Ocean Boulevard at Ocean View Memorial Hospital. The Goldfinch’s have buried at least 4 generations of my family to date. I’ve left here many times, swearing I was never coming back, only to return when I was broken. Why? Because even though most of my family is now gone, this is the place that holds my most joyful memories. No matter what else was happening in my absurd nomadic life, I always had those good times with my grandparents. There were moments when those enduring memories of happy times at the beach, on the rides at The Pavilion, and crazy times with cousins were what kept me going. I clung desperately to those memories of the place I called “home” and returned each time in an attempt to recapture those feelings of being happy, being loved, and being whole.

I don’t look back at Myrtle Beach’s past through the same rose-colored glasses as some, but I recognize its magic. Its siren’s song will pull you back with memories of days gone by while granting you a bit of amnesia about why you left in the first place. Like a shape-shifter, the Grand Strand has this strange ability to be all things to all people: “Redneck Riviera”; “Family Beach”; “Dirty Myrtle”; “A Shoppers Paradise”; “Golfing Mecca”; “Spring Break Playground”; “Tacky Tourist Trap”; “Home”. None of these labels are wrong; she’ll be anything you want her to be because she is what you make of her.

Yes, the quaintness of Myrtle Beach disappeared with each tree that was cut down along the bypass. It’s long gone and trying to reclaim it is futile. That’s the price of progress. The price of people having such a great time they decided they wanted to live here. Growing has its pains and as the population continues to swell, unfortunately, so will our crime rate, and I mean real crime, not noise ordinance violations. No amount of zoning voodoo is going to change that. Simply corralling crime into certain areas and letting it fester will no longer suffice. This once small beach has outgrown its small-minded ways of doing things and it needs to start acting like it.

I suspect that in a handful of decades those now in diapers will be wondering about what happened to the “family beach” of their memory. So, do your best to carve out a life for yourself or move on if you like, but remember that millions of people spend thousands to come here every year. Meanwhile, you get to live here and enjoy the waters. Hopefully, you get to do it with someone you love – someone you consider to be “family”.

“The Making of a Natural Disaster” is the first book of my series, “Somewhere Between This & That: An Absurd Journey” — Coming soon. Follow my blog at harmonieahillwest.com for the latest.

4 thoughts on “Myrtle Beach Amnesia – It’s A Kind of Magic

  1. Such a well written post. I’m from the north and hope to spend the last days of my life in the MB area. Have only been a yearly vistitor for the last 10 yrs, but knew after my 1st visit that I wanted to end up here.We avoid the boardwalk area and spend our time in North Myrtle Beach as thats what suits us Despite the typical “touristy” aspect of the Grand Strand, we chose to see the positive aspects and potential, amazing beach and natural areas, 1st class food (beyond the allyoucan eat buffets) . You are totally correct about how people remember their past, life does indeed seem simpler when you yourself were simpler.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m sure you’ll be very happy here. From Little River to Pawley’s Island — there’s lots to do and some of the best food you’ll ever eat.

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  2. A fascinating essay that, if nothing else, demonstrates the dangers of nostalgia in corrupting perception. Although I wasn’t born in Myrtle Beach I visited there often as a child because my paternal grandparents lived there (my Dad grew up there and his grandmother, Maude Law Ambrose, had moved there from nearby Conway after her husband’s death in 1937, so my roots there go back relatively deep) and I moved there at age 6 1/2 when the family business brought my Dad back. Much of what you say rings true — I remember one Bike Week (the generally tamer white one) in the late 1970s or early 80s where there was real concern about the Hells Angels and (I think) the Outlaws erupting into real violence — perhaps others can recall if it did.

    Your observations about strip clubs and pawn shops being more prevalent when the Air Force Base was still open may well be true, although I suspect that if one were to compare the 1960s and early 70s to the late 70s onward the earlier time would’ve had more of them. A good deal of that has to do with the move from the draft to an all volunteer force. Even the notorious Hay Street in what was then known as “Fayettnam” got considerably tamer as the troops from nearby Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base (now Pope Army Airfield) became, on average, more married and slightly older. As late as the 1980s I can remember Fort Bragg, Camp Lejune, and the Charleston Navy Base sending MPs and SPs to Myrtle Beach to keep the troops in line.

    At the risk of waxing theological (something priests are prone to do), this essay demonstrates that there was no golden age when sin and vice weren’t with us, despite what nostalgia might lead us to want to believe.

    Myrtle Beach has changed — as even you acknowledge — and I’m not fond of what it’s changed into, but then again maybe it’s not changed that much.

    Liked by 1 person

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