GR Walks: An app to explore Grand Rapids Discovering neighborhoods with personality

From an Eastown mansion that has been home to lumber barons and monks to a Heritage Hill home rumored to have several resident ghosts, "GR Walks"—a new walking tour app—tells the stories of Grand Rapids neighborhoods through their buildings.

Calvin alum Josh Leo '06 developed the app and put it together with assistance from Calvin students working for the Service-Learning Center (SLC). The first two tours, Eastown and Heritage Hill-North, are available for download on Apple and Android devices.

Getting started

Noah Kruis, SLC associate director, had plans to use the tours for service-learning programs like StreetFest and dorm partnerships. He received a grant to pay several students to research and write histories for the stops.

The students' research on Heritage Hill uncovered surprising details: "There's one stop on Crescent Street... The family that lived there were all great artists—particularly the women," Josh said. One of those women was considered the finest ceramic artist in the Midwest.

But it was the evolution of the Eastown neighborhood as a whole that stood out to Owen Selles '13, who worked as an SLC research coordinator last year.

"There's definitely a theme of urban revitalization [in the tour]. It's interesting to see how much change—both good and bad—has come about in Eastown even over the last 10 years," he said.

To increase public appeal, Owen also added neighborhood staples such as Yesterdog, a locally renowned hot dog joint. He knew those neighborhood mainstays well—he was living in Eastown at the same time he was researching it.

"It was cool investigating the place I was living in," he said. "You look at it differently when you know the history."

Looking forward

Noah hopes the tours have a similar effect on the SLC students. "We believe understanding the city has an impact on how you go about serving," he explained.

Josh urges everyone—not just Calvin students—to explore local history. He hopes "GR Walks" makes that history more accessible.

"In order to understand the place you're living in, you need to understand why it is the way it is. It makes the experience so much richer," Josh said. "You value a place a lot more."

VERGE: fall 2013

First-Year Experience