Citizen of the Month: Santa

The mustache is real. The rosy cheeks are real. And so is the uncommonly good nature that seems to charm children from Canal to Park Place. The beard, well, it’s yak hair of the finest variety — a custom number that can only be donned by the most generous and spirited of souls, and for that last reason, for his kindness to the children of Tribeca at this time of year, the obvious choice for Citizen of this particular month was Ken Brown, aka Santa of Harrison Street.

It started about 14 years ago — he can mark it by the age of his daughter, Gemma, who served as his first elf when she was in high school. The Friends of Washington Market Park was in need of a Santa for its annual party, and he stepped in. (It’s his recollection that he replaced Bob Townley in the role.) For a couple hours on a Saturday before Christmas, he listens to the requests of local kids. Sometimes they will sit on his knee; often they hover at his feet. He never wears gloves, even when it’s in the single digits. He likes to be able to hold their hands while he listens.

“I do love this job,” said Ken, 75, “mostly for the fact that they are the true believers and are really thrilled to meet Santa.” He says he can’t really keep up with the wishes of the new millenium, but he still does get the occasional request for a puppy or a bike. (He hasn’t heard one for a pony in a while.) His favorite was the child who asked for peace on earth. He told her he would do everything he could to work on it.

Santa’s day job is as an artist — illustrator, photographer, filmmaker, lighting designer. For nearly three decades he had a robust commercial art business, designing postcards, T-shirts, wrapping paper — anything printed — which he sold and distributed around the country. Over the years he published more than 2 million pieces and 600 images. (The entire collection — one of every item he produced — has been acquired by the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass Amherst for its archives, including his footage for the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead among others for the Boston Tea Party — a club in the ’60s — and his political work.)

He and his wife also did all sorts of whimsical projects for Sesame Street for more than a decade, including animated films for which they often cast local children, and for MTV’s animated intros. “It was like running a three-ring circus for a while,” he says. He now publishes a blog of photography and creates charming animations from his photos and paintings. He bikes all over the city, collecting images that he then catalogs in carefully curated digital files so he can create themes.

All in all, he has loved the work, he said, and the life they made here in Tribeca as a family. “I feel really fortunate. There’s a sense of accomplishment when you’ve made art of any kind. It was a good long run, and I am really grateful.”

Sounds like something Santa would say.



  1. Have lived in Tribeca for as long or longer than Ken and his family. Never really knew that much about them but we always greet each other in the same familiar way us longtime Tribecians do.
    They always make me feel happy when I see them as they have a special aura about them. Nice to be enlightened about them.

  2. Great pick! Ken is a true Tribeca legend and fantastic artist.

  3. Ken Brown is TriBeCa past and present. one of the rocks on which this neighborhood was founded.

  4. A favorite Ken Brown image: a woman in her backyard, standing in front of a screen of a harbor scene, next to a supermarket cart, her head down in her hand, with the caption, “If only we could conquer space and time.”

  5. As new Tribecans in 2006, we had the good fortune of moving into Ken and Lisa’s building, where we were the recipients of their warm, welcoming graciousness as we learned our way around the city, and the neighborhood. They and their smart, confident daughter left an indelible mark on us. We’ve stayed in the neighborhood we love, even adding 3 kids and two moves to our life’s experience – with one great constant being our appreciation of every random interaction with Ken and Lisa…two of the city’s finest ambassadors.

  6. Reading this article about Ken Brown being named citizen of the month absolutely made my day! Many many years ago we went to Provincetown annually and one of our big events each summer was racing to go buy the latest Ken Brown postcards. ( which we still treasure!) We felt so fortunate to have had the pleasure of hearing Ken Brown speak about a film he made about clouds at an event in Truro.

    And to wake up yesterday and find that Ken Brown, is alive and well, living around the corner from us in TriBeCa, and giving cheer to children and still doing his art just warms our hearts and soul! Go Ken Brown!