Atlantic Beach, S.C.
Atlantic Beach is another world compared to the rest of the Grand Strand.
On its streets and beaches, everything is quiet and calm, two words that could never be used to describe places like Myrtle Beach or Garden City.
Atlantic Beach has been able to preserve something almost no other part of the region can even imagine — a coastline unmarred by massive hotels and high rises blocking the view of the ocean that 20 million people seek out every year.
Sitting on the porch of a home across the street from the beach, the waves can be heard so clearly, performing a concert exclusively for the town. Visitors can stand on Highway 17 half a mile away and look down on an unobstructed view of the Atlantic, bluer than a jewel.
“This is my happy place,” said Denise Gibson, whose family has owned a house on the Atlantic Beach waterfront since the 1960s. Now 67, she has been visiting the town since the 1950s. “It has been like this all of my life.”
That preservation wasn’t entirely intentional. Some of it, yes, has to do with the town’s long-time rules against buildings taller than three stories. But much of the town’s stasis is because for decades, the outside world — and outside investors — often wanted nothing to do with this historically Black town, a safe haven for African Americans on the East Coast who wanted to enjoy the beach like everyone else.
Seemingly idyllic, a close eye reveals cracks in the town, both literal and metaphorical.
Most of the streets lack sidewalks. The regional bus system doesn’t stop in the town. Some of the roads need to be completely redone. Empty lots leave cavernous gaps in the town, nothing left of them except for concrete slabs overgrown by weeds. There are very few businesses left, a far cry from a town once known for ice cream shops and social clubs.
And the town lost almost half its population between 2010 and 2020.
Now, Atlantic Beach hopes for a revitalization, town officials and residents say. Black folks, other people of color and occasionally white people are coming in, seeing the value of the town and wanting to bring it to its full potential. There’s a stark contrast between the apparent decay of the town and this energetic movement to revitalize it. And at the same time, there’s a push and pull between efforts to progress toward a better future and the longing to stay true to the town’s roots.
A few years ago, brand new two- and three-story rental properties began cropping up everywhere. Old homes have been gutted and redone, turned into second homes, or rentals for tourists.
Plans are in motion to possibly build a 12-story multi-use development on the waterfront, featuring both a hotel and condos for people to purchase or rent. Looking for this kind of investment, the town changed those height rules for buildings more than decade ago.
Outside investors and home buyers are peering into the town, seeing the low property values and empty lots as an opportunity. It’s easy to run into tourists who will tell you they could imagine living in Atlantic Beach themselves. On several recent visits to the town, white tourists outnumbered anyone else in sight.
Is it gentrification? The town, residents and property owners know it looks that way, but they say what’s happening here is not gentrification. It’s not a bunch of wealthy white investors looking to erase the history of the town and shove out the few long-time residents left.
Gibson can prove it. All of those new homes being built? She knows who owns every single one of them. She can tell why they decided to rebuild, whether it was the original owner, their children or their grandchildren. And as for the white visitors, she talks up how they are bringing in revenue that the town needs.
Gentrification, GIbson says, looks more like what she’s watched in her primary home of Washington, D.C., “When you start seeing white people walking their dogs, it’s gentrification happening, or white people riding their bicycles.”
Instead, in Atlantic Beach, “It is African Americans who are choosing to spend their dollars in an African-American community.”
The town faces a central challenge with all of this development. On one hand, it desperately needs growth to survive. On the other, residents and officials want to make sure the place maintains the character that hundreds of thousands of visitors have come to love over the last 80 years.
“The challenge to the town is how do we retain its historical and safe environment under those conditions, so we don’t become overwhelmed and become just a commercialized community,” Town Manager Benjamin Quattlebaum said. “That’s the tug of war that goes on in the community.”
Where did the people go?
Atlantic Beach’s population has shockingly withered away in the last decade.
There was a time when that wouldn’t have seemed possible.
The town started out as a summer home away from home for Black doctors and lawyers from Conway and Fayetteville, North Carolina, Gibson said. Her family, in fact, got that beachfront home she loves from one of those doctors. Gibson’s father was a long-time caretaker of the house and bought it in the 1960s. Her parents honeymooned there.
The town thrived for decades, and the dawn of the Atlantic Beach Black Pearl Cultural Heritage and Bike Festival in 1982 brought even more interest into Atlantic Beach. Gibson talks about how the place seems to be a gift from God, protected again and again from the wrath of hurricanes that have laid low the rest of the Grand Strand.
“It is a very special place that God has blessed us with,” Gibson said.
Aaron Cox fondly remembers the Atlantic Beach of his childhood.
“It was a place where minorities could go,” said Cox, who runs the Carolina Knight Riders, which started Bike Fest in the 1980s and whose family owns property in the town.
Now, as he looks at the town, he says, “It’s sad, but I do see hope for the future.”
Through years of neglect and a lack of support from the state and federal government, the town slid into the state of decline where it is today.
“Government funding at the state level is always going to be a challenge because the state level government, the Republican administration, does not necessarily support Atlantic Beach,” Gibson said, “and I’m trying to be kind.”
Local issues, too, affected the state of the town.
In the 1960s, the city of North Myrtle Beach was created by combining a group of municipalities that had long banded together to provide water, electricity, police and emergency services. Atlantic Beach chose to stay independent rather than joining the rest, but it lost access to those crucial services as a result. Today, the town pays for its own police force, but the labor shortage has made it hard to find workers to fill those positions. The town pays North Myrtle Beach for water and Horry County for fire support.
Today, the town still stands, but its population has withered away.
From 2010 to 2020, the town shrunk from 334 residents to just 195.
It stands out as one of the very few areas in Horry County that lost population between 2010 and 2020. Most other areas, including Conway, Garden City, Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, all increased in population. The county as a whole is actually one of the fastest-growing areas of the state, adding 81,738 people in that decade, a 35% increase in population.
The decline in Atlantic Beach’s population came primarily from the loss of more than half of its Black population. In 2010, 182 Black people lived in the town. By 2020, that number had fallen to just 88. The town also saw a 78% decline in its Hispanic population, going from 55 people in 2010 to 12 in 2020. The town’s non-Hispanic white population only fell by 17%, or nine people.
There are a host of reasons for this decline, Quattlebaum, residents and local business owners say.
One of the biggest reasons was the 2010 demolition of a public housing complex, home to dozens of people. The town struggled to support the residents that the public housing brought in, lacking a grocery store to feed them and public transit to take them to work. The complex also discouraged major developers from coming in, former mayor Irene Armstrong said. At the same time, getting rid of the complex meant that the town’s population later collapsed.
“Atlantic Beach had public housing for three decades. … No community develops and grows that’s a beachfront destination whenever you have situations like that. No one wanted to invest, and nobody wanted to build,” Armstrong said. “I’m not slamming public housing. Public housing is a wonderful thing, it helps people to get on their feet, but it was time for it to move on.”
The public housing complex also contributed to the reputation that Atlantic Beach was unsafe and riddled with a crime — a perception that hasn’t disappeared.
“There are people who still believe that is what goes on in Atlantic Beach,” Gibson said.
In actuality, Quattlebaum said Atlantic Beach has almost no crime within its borders. One of the biggest busts recently was a couple sellers marketing counterfeit luxury items at Bike Fest several years back. Most of the time, he said, Atlantic Beach is a sleepy seaside town.
“It’s one of the safest places year-round in the Grand Strand, and our crime statistics bear that out in all categories,” he said.
There are other reasons for the population decline, too.
Betty “Toby” Dixon, owner of Toby’s Souvenirs & Bar in Atlantic Beach, noted how much of the town’s older population has died off over the years. And their children aren’t always rushing to move in, sometimes renovating the homes that belonged to their parents and sometimes selling them altogether, she said.
“Of the people who had places here, most of them are dead now,” she said. “Just a few (are) left.”
There are also more people using houses in Atlantic Beach as second homes than ever before, Gibson said. Those owners, she among them, wouldn’t be counted as residents in the census.
Finally, Gibson said she believes the census likely under-counted the town. Black people and older people have both been much more cautious of COVID-19, she said. Because the town consists of both majority Black and majority older residents, Gibson thinks census workers might have missed them. The town’s population also swells for much of the year because of long-term seasonal workers who rent, and Gibson thinks the census missed them, too, because they didn’t come in 2020.
There is some empirical evidence that gives credence to Gibson’s belief. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in March that the 2020 census continued a decades-long trend of under counting Black people, Latinos and Native Americans.
There are new people all the time, though, who would love to make Atlantic Beach their forever home.
One of them is Nekesa Smith, who was visiting in May from Atlanta and has come to Atlantic Beach for decades.
“I would love to see it grow. I see that it is growing, but I would love to see it grow further with more businesses,” Smith said. “It’s a beautiful piece of property, and I also would like to see a lot more of the positive history reflected.”
A hopeful future
Despite the recent years of decline, town officials, residents and visitors espouse nothing but hope for Atlantic Beach. They envision a utopic future, where the ice cream stands return, a grocery store provides access to healthy food, and businesses generate tax revenue to help fund desperately needed upgrades to public infrastructure, as would increased property tax funds as land and home values rise.
Quattlebaum has now been town manager for seven years and has helped double the town’s budget to more than $1 million in that time. He treks in from more than an hour away from his home in North Carolina every day to help the town because he, though he tends to hide it, is one of the most hopeful people of all.
“I was intrigued by the challenge that it brings, to hopefully be the catalyst to help revitalize it. That’s part of ego. That’s part professional as I see my calling to do,” he said. “How do you go from North Myrtle Beach to a four-block area undeveloped right smack in the middle of all this development? It’s unfathomable to me.”
Hope alone won’t rebuild the town. That utopic future, or how the town gets there, is still unclear.
Lacking sidewalks, residents and visitors often walk in the street. Looking in from the ocean, Atlantic Beach’s four blocks are one of the only stretches of coastline with power lines hanging down from the sky, while other beach towns had the unsightly lines buried underground. These fixes will cost millions of dollars.
“Even though Atlantic Beach has had its struggles over the years, it won’t be long before it will come back thriving again,” said Reggie Dyson, a long-time member of the Carolina Knight Riders whose family owns property in Atlantic Beach. “It may not be tomorrow. It may not be next week. But it will thrive again.”
A plan for a multi-use hotel and condo property is one of the starting points, Quattlebaum said. Details on the plan are limited, but it would likely be a 12-story building on the water, with a hotel on a few floors, and the rest of it would be condos for people to purchase or rent.
Though, the plans for that property have become something of a “believe it when I see it,” as several developers have come in over the years only to later pull out, said Gibson, whose house is across the street.
The town has also taken to demolishing long-vacant buildings, which Quattlebaum said has helped “spur a lot of investment” because “people see that vacant land as an opportunity.”
However, development presents some challenges. While no one believes the town will be gentrified by outside investors, they do want to ensure it maintains its character and respects the wishes of existing residents and property owners. The town also isn’t very large – only four streets wide and less than half a square mile in area.
In the last two and a half years, 25 new houses have been built. Another nine are currently under construction, and in the last few months, the town has received four more applications to build. However, the values of these properties are often still hundreds of thousands of dollars lower than the ones just outside Atlantic Beach’s town limits.
“We want to make sure that that we’re not just waiting on other people to develop places that are dear to our hearts,” said Leon Bailey, a developer who owns three vacation rentals in the community and has led the way on teaching best practices for development. “This place has come a long way, and it hasn’t been forgotten. It hasn’t lost its roots. And it wasn’t something that was done by outside sources. There’s been a collective process with neighbors and other friends and family that have visited that said, ‘Hey, I want to be a part of this.’”
Much of this development also happened during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when the town’s future — and the future of Bike Fest — was uncertain. Following that same pace, the town roared back to life this Memorial Day weekend, when Bike Fest returned for the first time in three years, bigger and better.
Quattlebaum has a frank view of it all. The town needs more development to survive, even if it doesn’t happen perfectly.
“A mix of commercial and residential (development) is going to have to take place, or we can’t sustain our operations,” he said.
As growth happens, Gibson wants to be sure that the town preserves its existing connection to the environment while adding in amenities like sidewalks, a grocery store and more restaurants. She wants to see the town’s power lines, a “blight” on the town’s ocean view, buried underground. And that’s not just an aesthetic issue; burying the lines would help protect the town from losing power during hurricanes or other powerful storms.
One gift — or curse — of the way development happens in Atlantic Beach means Gibson won’t have to figure out an answer to any of this tomorrow, or even next year. Development in the town moves extraordinarily slow. The high-rise is likely three or more years away from being built.
“I’m excited at what is happening. We are growing, and we are growing slow,” Armstrong, the former mayor, said. “Atlantic Beach has too much history” to just let anything happen. “We don’t want to become another area that has a brick wall across the ocean going up 20 stories.”
The slowness is partially by design, partially by circumstance. Quattlebaum said developers finally discovered Atlantic Beach a few years ago, hence the new vacation rentals cropping up left and right. Nevertheless, there is still some hesitation. Right now, there are very few businesses inside the town: a few restaurants and a souvenir shop on Highway 17.
“One supports the other, so in order to have restaurants that are going to be viable, you got to have people,” Town Council member Jim DeWitt said. “People will come through hotels and residential” development.
Quattlebaum said businesses, investors and homebuyers are interested in coming here, especially with the way the Grand Strand’s popularity and its housing market has mushroomed in the last two years.
“People have discovered our little enclave,” he said. “We are probably one of the best-kept secrets, from an investment standpoint, from a development standpoint. We don’t actively market or entice folks to come here, and that’s not because we don’t want to. It is because of the size of our town and the resources we have available.”
Simultaneously, Quattlebaum says some of those outsiders are still hesitant, unsure if Atlantic Beach is really the bet that will pay off, unsure if they really want to be the first to set up shop.
The slowness is also useful, Quattlebaum said. It means the town doesn’t have to rush to make any decisions. It means the town doesn’t have to worry about its residents being quickly priced out of their homes due to high rent or high property taxes. It means they can take care to ensure development benefits all 184 residents in town, rather than leaving them in the dust.
Protecting Atlantic Beach’s history, character
Gibson is working hard to make sure the town maintains its character as it grows. She’s helped the town get a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The $25,000 Telling the Full History Preservation Fund Grant will support the creation of historical markers near public beach access points to tell the town’s story through the decades. One of the historical markers likely will be for Punks Patio, where Black performers would hang out after their sets in other towns where they weren’t allowed to stay because of segregation.
Efforts like these, Gibson said, are crucial to ensure the town remembers what it once was as it goes through all these changes. She is also working to help the town get federal grants for hazard mitigation geared toward communities like Atlantic Beach and hopes to secure a designation from the National Register of Historic Places for the town later this year, which would open a host of new federal funding possibilities.
“Atlantic Beach is going to have to get creative around how we go after various kinds of funding,” Gibson said. “The local, state government officials let us clearly know that you can submit a bid, but (they) are looking for what they called shovel ready projects.”
Atlantic Beach, though, needs that outside funding just to get to the point of being “shovel ready.”
Gibson knows the town’s growth is necessary, and she loves seeing what her neighbors have done with their properties, taking dilapidated homes and empty lots and giving them new life.
But, that new high-rise the town would like to see built? It would be directly in front of her beloved beach house, ripping away the gorgeous beach view that keeps her coming back decade after decade.
Gibson hasn’t fully decided how she feels about it, and she’s not sure what she’ll do if the high-rise does get built.
“Do I like it? No,” she said. Asked if it was potentially good for the community, “Maybe.”
Quattlebaum and Gibson believe the dam will finally burst and people will be rushing back into the town, turning it from a summer destination into a year-around one, like much of the rest of the region boasts.
“The reality, from my standpoint, is that major commercial development on the waterfront is going to happen,” Quattlebaum said.
In the meantime, the town has a lot of work to do to prepare.
“It’s a process. I am feeling the excitement in the community, which is something I haven’t felt in a long time,” Gibson said. “The community is just now able to make all of the loose ends come together.”
This story was originally published June 29, 2022 5:00 AM.