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Virtual Heartside Walking Tours make Local History Fun and Accessible

This dispatch was added by one of our Nonprofit Neighbors. It does not represent the editorial voice of The Rapidian or Community Media Center.

The collaborative online series has taken tours to a whole new level by exploring Heartside history in the era of social distancing
Heartside Virtual Tours can be enjoyed at home or on-foot while walking the Neighborhood!

Heartside Virtual Tours can be enjoyed at home or on-foot while walking the Neighborhood!

Get Connected to Heartside Tours past and future!

Check out the series' Facebook page. Easily register for the FREE virtual tours through Eventbrite.

Not able to attend the virtual tours the day-of? Want to catch up on past tours? Every tour has been recorded and is available to the public for free on Replay: Virtual Heartside History Tour Series found on the Dwelling Place website. Hurry, these recordings will disappear shortly after the conclusion of the series!

As host, Dwelling Place is committed to assisting participants as they navigate through Zoom Video Communications, Google Maps, and online Survey services. If you have questions about any of these technologies, please reach out via email to Dwelling Place staff for assistance.

Caroline Cook guides participants through "Entertainment Expedition," the fourth installation of the virtual series

Caroline Cook guides participants through "Entertainment Expedition," the fourth installation of the virtual series

A custom Google map delineates the walking tour route where the Union Station once proudly stood.

A custom Google map delineates the walking tour route where the Union Station once proudly stood.

“While I ride my bike down the street, I look up at the buildings. You look at the buildings differently after you hear what Caroline, the program’s tour guide has said,” remarks former college professor and owner of GR Paddling LLC, Jeff Neumann, when asked about his experience with the Virtual Heartside Historic Tour Series. The series is led by Chief Tour Ambassador Caroline Cook, founder of Grand Rapids Running Tours, sponsored by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., (DGRI) and hosted by Dwelling Place. With the first virtual tour presented on Wednesday, May 27th, the events have taken place every two weeks from 12-1pm over Zoom call.  The biweekly presentations, which still have two future iterations on the calendar (7/22 and 8/5), include images and stories highlighting the origins, hospitality, culture, and history of Heartside. 

The Virtual Heartside Historic Tour Series has been a way to bring Grand Rapidians together while remaining within the safety of their own homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals and their families have the chance to participate in video presentations to learn about local history. The series has focused on offering a storied perspective of the Heartside neighborhood, giving a new level of meaning to well-travelled streets such as Cherry and South Division that Grand Rapidians walk, bike, and drive every day. “For the participants in the [Heartside] neighborhood, I would think that there must be some affirmation that others are studying it, appreciating their neighborhood, exploring it,” adds tour guide Caroline Cook.

As the pandemic continues with no end in sight, everything is 'going virtual.' This means those who did not grow up with current technology are forced into an unfamiliar world. “Citizen Historian” Cook shares a similar experience. Since establishing Grand Rapids Running Tours in 2014, Cook has expanded her methods of delivery by moving from running tours to walking tours to bus tours to presentations to present-time virtual tours. The current shift has “forced [her] into the new millennium.”

Although challenging, the move to a digital space also brings unique, positive possibilities. With the help of Dwelling Place, Cook has been able to reach a larger audience than ever before using Zoom conferencing technology. The tour guru believes that “moving the Heartside tours into a virtual platform has allowed more to get involved!” Now, participants are able to watch Cook present as they prepare lunch on a rainy day in pajamas. Custom Google Maps are also provided so participants can walk the route individually. These digital tools have made way for new possibilities and have sparked creative thinking. “Teachers could use this!” exclaims Gina Bivins, board member of the Grand Rapids Historical Society. Whether or not teachers choose to use these resources within the classroom, learners and students of all types who utilize these tools will “come to realize that education can be fun!” Cook says.

“I would recommend it to people. It gives another person’s perspective on the history of Heartside,” exclaims Bivins. She, along with other participants, has made great contributions to the conversation of local history. During one of the tours, she shared one of her 'aha’ moments when recognizing Union Station from an image taken from Ellsworth Street (now Grandville Ave) overlooking old Grand Rapids. “That’s fun. To be able to share when you realize the perspective of it... And I knew Caroline would want me to share that... I knew she’d like to know,” Bivins says. This collaborative spirit and open invitation for comment keeps the tours engaging and community-minded. All participants, regardless of their affiliations to historical authorities, are encouraged to share THEIR histories of Heartisde using the chat room available to Zoom participants. This creates a more richly colored, and therefore more true-to-form, picture of the core-city neighborhood.

After each tour, participants have been encouraged to follow up with a survey aimed to record their experience with the virtual Heartside series. Responses have shown that viewers range from GR and Heartside residents to local business owners and staff to students attending schools from around the area. The survey has also shown a number of participants watching the virtual tours with their families at home. Heartside tour participants Greg Rhodes, Shari Nelson, and Craig Thompson prasie the series, saying “This is such a good program to be able to participate in.” “We incredibly love and appreciate the opportunity for our whole family to learn about Grand Rapids history!” “Thank you for a great tour!”

The six-part series still has two tours remaining, so don’t hesitate to register! The next event, Civic Awakening: A Focus on Culture, will take place on Wednesday, July 22 from 12-1pm. You can sign up by visiting the Dwelling Place webpage, Facebook, or going to EventBrite directly. The Virtual Heartside Historic Tour Series has been sponsored by DGRI and Dwelling Place, and created in collaboration with Heartside Downtown Neighborhood Association, Grand Rapids Public Library, Grand Rapids Public Museum, Grand Rapids Archive, and Grand Rapids Historical Society. A special thanks goes out to series host, Caroline Cook, who has dedicated her time and efforts to “keep them coming” for participants like Jeff Neumann to enjoy.


With a mission to improve the lives of people by creating quality affordable housing, providing essential support services and serving as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization, Dwelling Place serves families and people in 4 counties across West Michigan. Dwelling Place is powered by volunteers and numerous staff persons and volunteers; guest writers create our Rapidian content. Thanks to Jeileny Tenorio for her contribution to this article. Jeileny is a Student at Aquinas College working as a Summer Volunteer Engagement AmeriCorps VISTA at Dwelling Place. 


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