by Will Moredock

Charleston City Paper

March 11, 2009

For decades the Myrtle Beach area has been plagued by two major motorcycle rallies in the month of May. Together the Carolina Harley-Davidson Dealers Association Rally and the Atlantic Beach Bike Festival filled the Grand Strand with noise, litter, violence, and gridlocked traffic over the course of three weeks.

After years of rising anger and complaints, the city of Myrtle Beach took action last year, passing a raft of ordinances designed to keep the bikers under control. These included new laws limiting exhaust noise and requiring riders to wear helmets and goggles. Bikers wailed and whined; some of them went to court to fight the new rules. But last week an impasse was broken when the Harley-Davidson group announced that they were pulling out of Myrtle Beach after more than 60 years and moving their annual rally to New Bern, N.C.

It will be interesting to observe how long the Harley crowd remains in New Bern before the town fathers pull in the welcome mat. But for now Myrtle Beach is done with them, and that is all that matters.

Myrtle Beach is one of a number of American cities that have struggled in recent years to control motorcycle rallies and motorcycle noise. They are part of a larger movement to create more livable cities in a time when cities are becoming more important than ever to the American way of life.

With the end of the fossil fuel age, scholars tell us that urban sprawl may have reached its apogee. In the future, cities will be denser and taller. With more people living closer together than ever before, a lot of the obnoxious, antisocial behavior that has been grudgingly tolerated for a long time may soon be verboten.

The noise abatement movement is in its infancy — about where the movement to ban indoor smoking was 10 years ago — but it already has several advocacy groups, most notably Noise Free America. And it has tens of thousands of adherents, pushing for noise control in cities around the country. These activists are much like non-smokers of a generation ago. They are beginning to discover that they are not alone in their anger and they do have legal recourse.

There are other noisemakers, of course. “Boom cars” and glass-pack mufflers are two of the most obnoxious. But they are not as numerous, and their riders are not as antisocial as motorcyclists. And that brings us to the other problem with motorcycles — violence.

Now, I am not saying that all bikers are violent, but the image is there and it is well earned and even celebrated in some quarters. And if you don’t believe there is a violent subtext to biker culture, check out the letters to the editor next week in response to this column.

Indeed, the incident which finally forced Myrtle Beach to take action against the biker rallies was the shooting death last year of a Coastal Carolina University student in a dispute over a parking space. A short-lived motorcycle rally in Charleston earlier in the decade was shut down after three years in part because violence among some of the participants made it impossible for the organizers to buy insurance.

I have been writing about motorcycles and motorcycle culture for years in this column and in my 2003 book, Banana Republic: A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach. I witnessed and lived through three annual cycles of biker rallies, when it was impossible to sleep for days, when traffic crept along U.S. 17 at 10 mph, when many residents simply packed up and fled, as if they were evacuating for a hurricane.

Of course, the good folks at Myrtle Beach and Atlantic Beach never planned it this way. It all started out as good fun and brought a lot of money to the area. But the biker culture conflicted with the “family fun” image that Myrtle Beach built its reputation on. Bikers drove away a more lucrative and desirable tourist segment. And finally, enough was enough. After last spring’s violence, Myrtle Beach leaders went to work to shut down the biker rallies. So far, they are 1-for-2.

I hope Mayor Joe Riley and city council are paying attention to what is happening on the Grand Strand. I have seen increasing numbers of bikers on Charleston streets during the tourist season in recent years. As I have written here before, motorcycles are completely out of place in our historic district. City leaders would be smart to learn from Myrtle Beach’s example and start cracking down on noise violations. Bikers must learn to obey the law like the rest of us.