The streets were packed here Friday with travelers from across the country on speedy street bikes and flashy Harley Davidson motorcycles as the annual bike rally kicked into gear.
The name has changed to the Black Pearl Cultural Heritage and Bike Festival, but for those who have spent their Memorial Day weekend here for decades, it’s still the same event, only bigger.
The atmosphere is part family reunion, part bike rally, with loud motors, louder music and a place to catch up with old friends under oak trees that line Atlantic Avenue.
But the main event is the parade of flashy motorcycles that files through the traffic chute to make the annual pilgrimage down the main street to pay homage to those who rode before them, decades ago when the Grand Strand was segregated and Atlantic Beach was the only summer destination for black tourists.
Arthur Grant of Savannah, Georgia, has been making the trek to Atlantic Beach for longer than the 81-year-old can remember.
Sitting in the shade while sipping on homemade beverages with friends, Grant said that back in the day, they used to load up an old school bus to get here.
Now he rides his decked-out, champaign-colored Honda for the event, just to watch the festivities unfold.
“I’m just going to sit here and whistle and holler at the young girls,” Grant said.
“Look, but don’t touch,” said Grant, who has been married for 61 years.
This year Grant brought a new friend, Sam Hills, who has never attended bikefest. Hills is hoping the festive atmosphere will help heal his soul.
“My wife died last weekend,” Hills said. “She was sick for a long time, and I took care of her for four years. Right now, I got nothing to do, but try to get over it.”
Hills has been riding since he was in high school, and said it was time he finally made the trip to see what the Atlantic Beach bikefest is all about.
“I’m just going to sit here and watch the parade and try to think about the good memories of my wife,” Hills said. “She used to love riding my bike.”
Most attendees ignored the increased police presence that directed bike traffic, lined intersections, and patrolled the four-block area.
About 600 police officers are expected to add security to this year’s event and help operate the 23-mile traffic loop that goes into effect Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
The mass of law enforcement is the result of a shooting during the 2014 event in which three people were killed.
Attendance appeared to slack off after the traffic loop went into effect, but folks attending this year say the community has healed, as evidenced by a bigger crowd, dozens more venders lining the street, and headliner concerts this year.
“The food is great, the weather is perfect, and the people are beautiful and vibrant,” said one attendee from Graham, North Carolina.
Atlantic Beach is home turf for the annual event, but the majority of attendees usually spend most of their time cruising downtown Myrtle Beach.
The founding neighborhood is hoping to change that pattern by offering a lineup of live music all weekend, featuring Bobby Rush, Tina Brown, TK Soul, ZAPP, Midnight Star and Big Mucci.
Not everything got off without a hitch.
A new event this year is facing criticism from county officials who say the “Paradise Party Compound,” a club entertainment venue hosted in a party tent, is not safe.
The dangers listed in a fire code review include a single entry and exit for the 15,000 square foot tent, no presence of fire safety equipment, and smoking permitted inside.
The letter from Chris Eldridge, county administrator, asked the town not to approve the venue’s operation until the problems were addressed.
“I understand the decision to close the venue rests solely with the Town of Atlantic Beach,” Eldridge stated. “Even so, I feel that you, as the responsible party, should know how concerned the leadership of Horry County Fire and Rescue and myself are that this venue may be used this upcoming weekend in its current unsafe condition. I believe it is your responsibility to keep visitors to your town safe.”
However, promoter Tony Marcus said those issues were taken care of before the club opened Thursday night.
And, he said no smoking is allowed. The tent is stocked with fire safety equipment, including extinguishers, and there are three exits, he said.
Marcus said he was proactive in making sure the club was safe, putting up metal detectors, hiring private security, and inviting the fire chief to do an inspection earlier this week.
He said he didn’t hear of any concerns until Thursday, and that those issues were quickly addressed.
“It’s no different than the tents at the Country Music Festival, but for whatever reason, this is denied,” said Marcus, who has promoted these same events at festivals for 11 years.
“It feels like they are trying to end it, it feels like hate,” Marcus said.
Despite the county’s objection, Marcus said Atlantic Beach officials gave him the okay and the club will be open all weekend.