This summer, Calvin alum Josh Leo, in partnership with Calvin’s Service-Learning Center, released GR Walks, a free smartphone app that provides historical information on the different neighborhoods in Grand Rapids.
The app currently has two tours: “Eastown and East Hills” and “Heritage Hill North.” Once a tour is downloaded, users can read through slides that include historical information and pictures for that location. If the user gets lost, the tour has a map of the area to get the user back on track. The Heritage Hill tour also includes audio. Both tours take about 90 minutes to complete.
Since its summer release, GR Walks has been downloaded more than 500 times from the Google Play Store. The explosive popularity may be due, in part, to the ability to access information immediately, a feature that was previously not readily available.
“I’ve always been interested in local history and making it accessible,” said Leo, a Calvin alumnus and the founder of GR Walks. “Most of the history lives in books and online. I wanted to bring the history to the places where it happened. I wanted to be able to learn about a house, a building, a person, while standing in front of that location.”
Leo hopes that GR Walks will not only help inform residents of Grand Rapids about their city, but also foster a sense of community and a desire to discover new areas of Grand Rapids.
“Not only will [GR Walks] help solidify a sense of place for a person, but it will also encourage people to explore other neighborhoods in the city,” Leo said.
This desire to engage with Grand Rapids and take ownership of the city is what attracted the attention of Noah Kruis, associate director of Calvin’s Service-Learning Center.
“The Service-Learning Center has been working on developing walking tour guides to neighborhoods in which Calvin students participate in service-learning. When I heard about Leo’s project, I saw an obvious opportunity for mutual benefit,” Kruis said.
“I quickly learned that I couldn’t do the whole project by myself,” Leo said. “I approached a few different local organizations [with the idea], but no one was interested. When Noah Kruis at Calvin offered to partner, I jumped at the opportunity.”
However, the project got off to a slow start.
“I got a grant in 2011 to begin the process [of developing the app], expecting that by spring of 2012, we would have a product to show for our work. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until June of 2013 that the app was finally launched. When we did launch and could show people the potential of GR Walks, we were blown away by the interest in the app from all over Grand Rapids.”
Several tours are in the works, including one that covers the history of Calvin. In addition, the Service-Learning Center is in communication with the history department about developing tours as a service-learning component of some courses this fall.
Recently, the Service-Learning Center received money from the student employment office’s contingency fund to hire a student to research and develop tours specific to neighborhoods where Calvin students frequently engage in service-learning.