Grand Rapids Press - Historical Grand Rapids walking tours provided by mobile app created by Calvin College alum
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GRAND RAPIDS, MI - As Josh Leo makes his way through Grand Rapids, he’s often struck by – and eager to learn more about – the historic buildings and homes that dot the city’s neighborhoods.
Who, he wondered, built the ornate mansions and other structures found in the city’s Heritage Hill and East Hills neighborhoods? How did they accumulate their fortune?
The Calvin College graduate has chronicled the answers in a free mobile app known as GR Walks. The app guides users through walking tours of the northern portion of the city’s Heritage Hill neighborhood and the Eastown and East Hills neighborhoods.
On the app, users will find pictures and written histories of homes, businesses and other landmarks in the two neighborhoods. The idea, Leo said, is to give walkers an opportunity to see how the neighborhoods and structures have changed over time.
“I wanted to bring the history to the locations where they happened so you could compare the past to the present all while you’re on bike ride,” said Leo, 29, a marketing manager at Word of Hope, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit.
Created with the help of students at Calvin, Leo estimates that 400 people have downloaded the app since it was launched this week. Five students worked on the project over a two-year period, providing writing and research.
It was funded through a $3,500 grant from the Michigan Campus Compact, with the college contributing about $4,000 for wages, equipment and other expenses.
“Higher education can be seen as this ivory tower where people just think about ideas,” said Noah Kruis, associate director of service-learning at Calvin. “This is one tangible way that the work that we’ve done will contribute to broader society.”
Leo has long been interested in the city’s history. His first apartment was in the city’s Heritage Hill neighborhood, and he was immediately drawn to the homes, many of which were built in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century.
He sensed others were curious as well. While plenty of history exists documenting the story of the city’s historic buildings, he said a mobile app brings to life the stories of the structures in a more accessible way.
“It almost feels like a secret society at times,” he said. “You need to know the right people to talk to; you need to know the right books.”
Creating easier access to the material, he hopes, will help strengthen residents’ relationship with the city. Leo plans on adding an audio component to the app in coming weeks, and he hopes to add additional neighborhood tours in the future.
“The more you know about where you live, the deeper connection you have to it,” he said.