If like me anyone out there is experiencing serious withdrawal pains from the recently completed 2012 Summer Olympics in London, I invite you to consider this story as a kind of an anglophile placebo. Its subject is gritty and unusual, related to England by way of forever-cool and classic English bikes. What I’m talking about namely is the story of New York City’s beloved British motorcycle repair shop located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side – the legendary Sixth Street Specials.
The man behind the legend – Hugh Mackie, is actually from Scotland. In mid-1980’s, after graduating from Glasgow School of Art and moving to Paris to work on building movie sets for French films, Hugh decided to try his luck as an artist and pursue a new life in New York City. Settling in the East Village, he stayed connected to his life-long passion for English motorcycles by fixing an occasional old bike he found in the city through classified ads. One thing led to another, more enthusiasts sought Hugh’s expertise, and eventually what used to be a hobby transformed into a legitimate business. It’s as if New York’s presumably dead local English bike scene, kickstarted in 1950’s by Steve McQueen, was waiting for someone to come along and revitalize it, to breathe new life into its lethargic old Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs.
The truth is, when Hugh Mackie appeared on New York’s motorcycle scene and established his shop in the midst of Alphabet City, he could never have predicted it would become a legendary New York story, serendipitous enough to make even cynics marvel at deliberateness of chance. Located two blocks away from famous Tompkins Square Park, Sixth Street Specials was always destined to be much more than a place to fix bikes or buy motorcycle parts. From its very inception and to this day the workshop is a greased-down, perfectly preserved time capsule of New York City’s wild underground, a natural point of spirited convergence for local bohemian and bike subculture.
I visited Hugh one afternoon, curious about what stories he might share from Alphabet City’s colorful 1980’s. Never did I imagine I would hear that his late business partner was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s stepson Dimitri Turin! Of course because I grew up in the former Soviet Union, I have a deep appreciation of good and random Russian connections. Yet an even more obvious connection was already in place the first time I set foot inside Sixth Street Specials. The thread goes back to 70’s and early 80’s, when my father used to ride old Eastern European Jawa bikes across Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and the Baltic states. Inside Hugh’s shop every smell and object triggered my own precious memories of my father in his youth, the Russian version of Steve McQueen in our Minsk neighborhood taking me and my friends for rides on the back of his old bike. The story goes that my father actually met my mother in a Soviet motorcycle repair shop, where she worked part-time as a sales girl during university years…
Clearly, the love of open road, bikes and adventure rubbed off on me early in life, so when a dear friend introduced me to Hugh Mackie at Sixth Street Specials, I immediately knew I wanted to return and shoot there. When I did, all personal connections still intact and complementary, I felt like I had cut right through time and for a moment actually became a tiny part of East Village history.
Thankfully, Hugh showed no restraint in helping his workshop space become a treasure trove for photo-junkies and urban anthropology enthusiasts like myself. The neighborhood may have undergone tremendous changes induced by gentrification at the beginning of 1990’s, but in and around the shop the atmosphere itself speaks of those gritty days when Alphabet City was filled with junkies, punk rockers, homeless people, crime, and struggling young artists like Madonna. Sixth Street Specials was there when Tompkins Square Park Police Riot occurred, it witnessed transformation of the neighborhood from tough to unaffordable, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that according to Hugh – if the shop’s walls could actually talk, you might be compelled to close your ears.