South Carolina's Myrtle Beach doesn’t want to be ‘Dirty Myrtle’ anymore
No one can really say definitively where the nickname “Dirty Myrtle” came from, or when it appeared.
Some say it came from a beer popularized decades ago called “Dirty Myrtle.” Others think it had to do with water quality testing of this stretch of the Atlantic, or the fact that the ocean water often looks brown, rather than the pristine blues of Florida. Many believe the name comes from the region’s occasional reputation as a crime-ridden, unsafe place.
A few associate the name with the area’s nightlife. But that’s a relatively bygone era; it’s no longer the ’90s when the Grand Strand had dance clubs on practically every street corner downtown. Some of the strip clubs that gave the area a sleazier vibe have also closed.
Charleston is the “Holy City.” Columbia is “Soda City.” Charlotte is the “Queen City.” Myrtle Beach has, well, a nickname that isn’t as nice.
There is one assurance with the name — it is frequently used to ridicule one of the most popular coastal towns on the eastern seaboard.
The utterance often will come with a tone of derision, Myrtle Beach residents say, as if there’s something disgusting about being from a place commonly known for its 60 miles of beaches.
Karen Riordan, who adopted Myrtle Beach as her home several years ago, remembers clearly the first time she heard the phrase “Dirty Myrtle.”
A long-time vacationer to Myrtle Beach, Riordan said she’d never heard the name until she moved here. But it was not long after. She was on a business trip to Charleston, Myrtle Beach’s high-and-mighty southern sibling, and the receptionist at her hotel looked at Riordan’s ID and said, “Oh, you’re from ‘Dirty Myrtle.’”
“I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. What does that mean?’ And she laughed,” said Riordan, the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce CEO. “I was a little offended. And she’s like,’ Oh, no, no, I didn’t. I didn’t mean it that way.’”
Riordan said she never got a sense that the receptionist truly understood that her comment might be mean, or even rude. It was as if the name “Dirty Myrtle” was something so passé that it lacked all meaning, in spite of the crude connotation.
“It’s said a lot of times in a dismissive way, like ‘We’re X and you’re ‘Dirty Myrtle,’” Riordan said. “She didn’t apologize per se, but she was sort of like,’ Oh, I see your point,’ because I said, ‘I really wish you wouldn’t use that expression. That’s not a flattering expression.’”
Amy Barrett, who moved to the area just a few weeks ago, heard similar comments when she told friends and colleagues she was coming to Myrtle Beach. At times, it almost sounded like they were trying to convince her to change her mind, she said.
“Something like continuously referring to Myrtle Beach as ‘Dirty Myrtle’ will continue to hold us back as we’re trying to think about a brighter future,” said Barrett, who now helms the new Myrtle Beach Downtown Alliance and is charged with improving that area’s presence and reputation. “I was undeterred in moving here because I know that there’s also really great things about Myrtle Beach.”
Opinions on the nickname range widely among locals, both those born here and those who moved here yesterday, five years ago and 30 years ago. Some think it’s funny. Others are mortified every time they hear it. One person, as The Sun News collected viewpoints through Facebook for this story, worried the paper was running a hit piece on her beloved hometown.
“I think it’s insulting to the area. It’s not the town, city or state, but the people who live and visit there who make the reputation. I hate it when people refer to our beautiful city in that disrespectful manner,” Myrtle Beach resident Nancy Webber wrote in response to a post asking about how locals felt about the name “Dirty Myrtle.”
Finding a new identity
Earlier this year, the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce unveiled a new marketing campaign for the Grand Strand. Henceforth, the region would be known as “The Beach,” or so the chamber hoped.
The new moniker came from extensive market research the chamber paid for to find out how people talked about Myrtle Beach to their friends and online. Over and over again, the chamber said, people often referred to the Grand Strand simply as “The Beach,” and often this was the primary, or only, beach they visited.
“The Beach,” without any other descriptors, was how Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune said she heard people talk about her home when she was growing up. “Dirty Myrtle” is a more recent issue, she noted.
“It’s degrading to the entire community,” Bethune said. “If we get this reputation of being something that we’re not, we’re only hurting ourselves. We’re hurting our property values. We’re hurting our business community. We’re deterring people who may want to come here, to move here.”
Among the 10 people interviewed for this story — people born here, longtime residents, tourism leaders and business owners — a common thread surfaced when discussing the concept of “Dirty Myrtle”:
If Myrtle Beach is so dirty, then why do tens of millions of people visit every year? Why are thousands of people moving here? In so many ways, residents and local leaders say, it’s an ultimate irony, a source of head-scratching confusion, to make those two issues compute. “
It’s just kind of ludicrous,” said Stephen Greene, who has lived here since the early ’90s and is CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association. “We are at one of the top family beaches in the country, one the top family destinations in the country. So, it’s ironic that people would utilize that (nickname) against us.”
Getting a face-lift
Finding a new identity isn’t just about picking a new nickname.
Myrtle Beach, particularly on the popular Ocean Boulevard, struggles with highly visible crime that at times can give the region a reputation of being less safe than it actually is.
“Perception to some point has to be our reality. If people have a perception that this area is not safe, we need to address that and make sure that they feel safe,” Bethune said.
The perception of crime in downtown might also be just that, a perception, Greene said. There’s nothing here, he said, that doesn’t happen in other major American cities. It’s just talked about a lot because Myrtle Beach is a small town.
“There has to be some understanding that later at night there are some locations that younger children might hear things or see things,” Greene said. “I wouldn’t take my kids out to a large city in the middle of the night and walk around.”
Besides the safety perception issue, there’s also the abandoned buildings and empty storefronts. Plenty of skyscraping, high-value, beachfront buildings sit empty with chains blocking off the parking lots of long-closed hotels and motels. Myrtle Beach’s downtown, too, is littered with empty units, waiting for businesses to find them appealing and fill them. The area has also dealt with “nuisance properties” that repeatedly attract illicit drug use and other crimes until the city shuts them down.
The way the city has handled crowd control in the past hasn’t helped perceptions, either, officials admit. For years, to keep crowds on sidewalks, the city has used barricades that give the appearance of a construction site mixed with a music festival venue.
The city hopes to soon never have to use them again. By next summer, the city plans to install permanent decorative railings along sidewalks to keep people from wandering in the road instead of the barricades.
“All the investments that we’re making are things that are going to lead to a better community that’s more vibrant, more social and more welcoming for everyone,” Bethune said.
Downtown’s current appearance is why Ralph Hunn, who has lived here since the 1970s, says the term “Dirty Myrtle” is “justified.” Hunn used to run local night clubs, the places some people attribute the pejorative to, but he said he’s always heard “Dirty Myrtle” in reference to downtown alone.
“The people that are involved in the revitalization and all that kind of stuff, I don’t think they’ve done a great job,” Hunn said. “It’s a shame because I think our downtown should be the growing point.”
Change isn’t easy. One of the biggest steps forward, the opening of Grand Strand Brewery in downtown, took years to pull together and was beset by delays, albeit some of them due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Some struggles are clear-cut. In May, when the chamber unveiled “The Beach” marketing plan, it also expressed its desire to have the hulking gray eyesore that is the Pavilion Parking garage painted in a beautiful design to brighten up downtown. They wanted sidewalks downtown painted, as well.
The goal was to have the painting done by mid-June, in time for Carolina Country Music Fest, the chamber said at the time.
It’s now December. Nothing has happened.
But progress is happening in other ways. The city is inching along in its efforts to revitalize downtown with the creation of the “Arts and Innovation District.” The centerpiece right now is Grand Strand Brewery, and the hope is to bring more high-quality businesses like it to the area.
On Dec. 2, the city approved a $20 million investment to go toward downtown eventual improvements such as a new library, a new museum (or two), a performing arts center, a co-working space and a new city square for events all in downtown.
There’s also plenty of evidence that the work can be done, if slowly. The Market Common was once an Air Force base and closed in the ’90s. By 2010, Bethune is eager to point out, it became a thriving neighborhood and shopping center that still can’t stop growing in popularity.
Does anyone care?
Riordan has exactly one hope for the term “Dirty Myrtle.”
“‘Dirty Myrtle’ should really get put into the dust heap of history and left there,” she said, “because that’s not who we are.”
Greene believes it’ll die off somehow, someway. Surely, he says, people wouldn’t be coming to Myrtle Beach if it wasn’t possible for the area to shake off the insulting moniker.
“Overall, it’s not impacting, you know, our tourism at all,” Greene said. “It’s just an unfortunate phrase for those of us who live here and those of us who vacation here.”
Another term, Myrtle Beach as the “Redneck Riviera,” already has died off somewhat. It’s rare to hear it anymore, and few people say it in the contemptuous way that people say “Dirty Myrtle,” locals and officials say. Myrtle Beach earned that reputation, locals say, because of how the region has long attracted blue-collar or lower-income vacationers than more “well to do” destinations. Yet, today, it is widely seen as an achievement that Myrtle Beach remains an affordable destination compared to many other popular locales.
But can “Dirty Myrtle” die out organically? Mentions of it in local Facebook groups are frequent. One group set up a few years ago, “Dirty Myrtle Night Life,” embraces the name. The group primarily serves as a way for people to post and learn about local concerts and other happenings. The group’s founder and administrator, Riccardo Lawrence, thinks the name is funny and not something that’s bad for the region.
“I don’t mind it,” said Lawrence, who is a DJ and has worked in the nightlife industry for much of his career. “It’s just a nickname, like New York is the ‘Big Apple.’ Down here, we’ve got ‘Dirty Myrtle.’”
The biggest shift that needs to happen for the area to be rid of the name, Bethune believes, is for locals to be more intentional about how they talk about where they live. If people call Myrtle Beach “dirty,” they need to be corrected, she said.
“Are we the Queen City or the Holy City? No, we’re not. And that’s OK because we have things that they don’t have, just like they have things that we don’t,” Bethune said. “But I think it’s the responsibility of everyone here that when we hear (Dirty Myrtle), we correct people and say, ‘You know what? Don’t trash where we live. Don’t trash where businesses choose to invest. Don’t trash our vacation destination.’”
But Lawrence thinks that tact, and other efforts to force a rebrand, could backfire. By intentionally trying to kill the nickname, Myrtle Beach might be drawing attention to it.
“I don’t think anyone would care if they try to shift away from it,” he said. “I feel like it’d make it worse. The best way to get rid of something is to stop talking about it.”