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Sixth Street Specials: For the Love of Bikes

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.

 (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin)

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.

 (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin)

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.

 (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin)

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.

 (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin) (Anna Fishkin)

6 Responses to “Sixth Street Specials: For the Love of Bikes”

  1. cameron says:

    this is awesome

  2. Kenny graham says:

    A story like no other a Scotsman showing how it’s done a true legend and a son of Scotland . Pursuing his passion . I live in Glasgow . It makes me proud to see an engineer like Hugh still keeping bikes alive and showing you don’t need a Harley to go retro . Nice one big chap lol

  3. Jim Lewis says:

    I knew Hugh as a young child and I met his parents a couple of years ago. I had no idea what he was up to, but, hey, it’s no surprise another Scot is leading the way in engineering. Proud of you, Hugh.

  4. Jenny says:

    Was in N/YORK in Aug 2011, When the hurricane was around, My purpose 4 being in America was to go to Sixth Street Specials, I found the place where the bikers used to hang around , The paintings of the bikes is still on the walls, but now its a restaurant/cafe, and they could not give me any information as to where Hugh Mackie was , If i had turned left and walked towards Hudson River , i would have found him, But no, i turned right , totally gutted,, Every thing was going wrong, I only found out where i should have gone when i was back in England, Theres still a very good chance i can visit New,York in 2015, and get to 6th Street Specials, 3 months after being back i got hit by a car, broke my left tibia in 2 places, My bike was a rite-of, Took best part of a year to mend my leg, So my claim is not far of from being sorted, So hopefully be booking a flight back to visit 6th street Specials, I came across Hugh Mackie by reading an article in a magazine , this was at a visit to the dentist, Now just want to get back and the 1st port of call will be East Village,

    • Hey Jenny.
      I liked your ‘tragic’ story. Did you make it back to east village? I’m the guy that lived next door in the storefront. My Triumph was the first british bike that ‘Hugh-ey’ rode. (Dimitri called him ‘Hugh-ey’)
      all the best! Fresh. Joy. Peace.

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