When vandals spray-painted anti-immigrant graffiti on Browne’s Irish Market last June, it was front page news in Ireland. Seeing the phrase “Immigrants Not Welcome” painted on a wall at the historic Irish deli, grocery and retail shop at 33rd and Pennsylvania shocked people in Kansas City, too.
Workers quickly scrubbed the offensive paint off the country's oldest continuously operating Irish business. But its memory took longer to fade, which is why a group of knitters and crocheters decided to respond with their own handiwork. Soon, a 24-foot yarn village will adorn the market, complete with fuzzy versions of Browne's, Drexel Hall and Redemptorist Catholic Church. They've named it "Harmony-ville."
“We’re hoping that people will just stop by, to look at it, touch it," says Abby Call, the unofficial leader of a group of women who call themselves The Fiber Follies. "Just to get the vibe that we’re trying to put out there, that there’s no reason to hate anybody. You know, we’re all in this struggle together.”
The Fiber Follies meet on Monday afternoons at The Kansas City Irish Center, which is just up the street from Browne's. Call says the group typically meets to work on sweaters, scarves and gloves — not buildings and houses with windows and doors.
Everyone in the group was eager to find a way to respond to the vandalism in a public way, Call says. They plan to install their fiber village at Browne's on the first day of April. It will hang on the Pennsylvania-facing side of the market for several months.
This colorful, wooly installation is a type of street art known as yarn bombing. Each building is crocheted without a pattern but with a keen eye for details in the neighborhood. Big green doors embellish the red brick of Drexel Hall. Fluffy gray spires and a multicolored stain glass window decorate the Redemptorist Church. An Irish flag tops Browne's. In between are row houses inspired by homes in Ireland.
The houses and buildings took many hours to complete; Call estimates it took 40 hours just to crochet their fluffy interpretation of Drexel Hall. In the process, she says, it was necessary to take some creative license.
“Part of the time to make it is to sit down and draw it out and say, 'OK this is how it looks,'" she says. "Now how do I take my yarn and turn it into that?”
"I am glad that we’re doing this because, for me, it was very upsetting," says Alberta Boulkhouatem, using a needle to stitch a bright red heart emblazoned with the word love. "I love that we imagined the community as soft and I love that we used this medium of knit and crochet because it's really a very welcoming community with all kinds of people and I think it’s very important to remember that."
Kerry Browne, a fourth-generation owner of the market, says there's been an outpouring of love and support.
"That week we had people come by who said, 'My father was an Italian immigrant,' or 'I'm here from Yugoslavia.' People from all over the world came in and said, 'It was our story together and we own it and we're here with you.'"
But Browne says she never expected that the possitive effects would continue to ripple through the community almost a year later.
"I am truly blown away," she says. "They spent all this time and love and effort to make sure we knew that kindness wins. It’s an act of true love and kindness."
Browne's great grandparents, Ed and Mary Flavin, arrived in the Midwest from County Kerry, Ireland, in 1887. She says she often tries to think of the difficulties they faced being so far from home.
"I am always amazed by them and what they gave us and how much harder it was then," she says.
Their experience taught her that it was important to be welcoming to people from around the world.
"On any given day we truly see every nationality here and that’s what we love about it," says Browne.
And now, Browne has something to look forward to after that other big springtime Irish celebration.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.