Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Since 1907
Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Service-learning center takes students on a ‘GR Walk’

“You need to know the history of a city to understand why it is the way it is today,” said Josh Leo, a 2005 Calvin graduate and founder of GR Walks, an app that provides guided audio tours that dig deep into the history and culture of neighborhoods and landmarks in Grand Rapids.

As part of the Service-Learning Center’s ReVision event, students took the one-hour Riverfront walking tour on Saturday, April 25, learning about the history of the Grand River and its interaction with the city of Grand Rapids.

The app was the brainchild of Leo, who said, “I was inspired to create the app by driving around and seeing old buildings but never knowing what the story was behind them. I wanted to bring the history to the physical location, and an app was a great way to do that.”

Integrating print and audio narration with historic photos of landmarks, quirky stories and GPS enabled maps, the development of the app has  resulted from the collaboration of Leo, the Calvin College Service-Learning Center and the U.S. Social and Cultural History class, taught by history professor Kristin Du Mez.

The Riverfront tour traces landmarks along the river, encouraging participants to stop and consider places in a different way. Sophomore Joy Christopher attended Saturday’s event and enjoyed using the app on her walk around the Grand River.

“The pictures and text really helped me visualize what Grand Rapids looked like decades ago. It was fun to compare ‘then and now’ pictures and it was surprising to see what had changed and what had stayed exactly the same,” she said.

In addition to historical information, the app shares unique stories of the places in question.“The most interesting parts in the walking tour are the stories, things like big banquets on Pearl Street Bridge or families of artists living in Heritage Hill,” said Leo.

The Riverwalk tour described the largest log jam in U.S. History, which took place in 1904, with enough logs to encircle the earth and then some.

For Du Mez’s class, work on the app gave students an opportunity to integrate their studies with the world around them.

“I thought a GR Walks tour would give students a chance to do social and cultural history themselves and make it accessible to people who might not pick up a cultural history book. It would give them a chance to help others see the world around them in a new light,” she said.

For all of its informative purposes, the app also influenced participants’ understanding of their role in the city of Grand Rapids.

“I learned a lot about how seemingly arbitrary decisions in the past have really shaped the heart of the city and influenced the way we interact with the river right now,  Christopher said. “It’s made me aware that our generation has the responsibility to shape our place in a way that is life-giving to those that come after us.”

Sophomore Maaike Mudde, GR Walks Research Coordinator, who spent the semester locating photographs and securing rights to information included in the app, emphasized a similarly influential experience.

“My favorite thing about my job is meeting and learning from people who are passionate about their neighborhoods and are working towards positive change in their communities. It has given me a vision for how I would like to live my life,” she said.

Saturday’s walk is but one of the tours available on the GR Walks app, which is available on both mobile and tablet devices on the Apple and Android app stores, and there are plans for continued development of tours in Grand Rapids.

The U.S. Social and Cultural History class is putting finishing touches on a tour of East Grand Rapids’ Ramona Park, which was an amusement park on Reeds Lake in the early 1900s.

The class has also developed a tour about the history of beer in Grand Rapids.

“It sounds like a trendy topic and it is. But after spending the first half of the semester reading in cultural history and learning about race, class, gender and power, the students are equipped to write a different sort of history,” Du Mez said.

“So it’s a story about beer, but they’re working hard to making it a story that’s not just about hipsters and craft beer,” she said.”It’s about early settlers, working-class immigrants, temperance women and barmaids, African-Americans, religious reformers, the homeless…and, yes, hipsters.”

Correction: This article originally stated that the GR walks app was developed, in part, by the U.S. Social and Cultural History class taught by “Kathleen Du Mez.” It has been updated with her correct name, Kristin Du Mez.

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