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RapidChat: Caitlin Harvey

As Director of Community for 616 Lofts, Caitlin Harvey is the perfect resource for all things Grand Rapids. With community creation being one of her biggest passions, this boomerang West Michigander spends much of her time researching and implementing new and innovative ways to create a more livable downtown.
Caitlin Harvey

As Director of Community for 616 Lofts, Caitlin Harvey is the perfect resource for all things Grand Rapids. With community creation being one of her biggest passions, this boomerang West Michigander spends much of her time researching and implementing new and innovative ways to create a more livable downtown.
RapidChat: Where does your passion from community come from?
Caitlin Harvey: I originally had the hopes of being a photojournalist and traveling the world. I took a semester off one year and moved to Bosnia to work with a humanitarian aid organization teaching English to underprivileged youth. During that time I rarely picked up my camera. I found I was far more excited about immersing myself in the villages we visited, connecting with the people rather than sitting back taking photos of them.
I went back to Indiana to finish my degree in photography then immediately moved to Nashville, TN to work as a freelance photographer. I quickly learned I was a terrible entrepreneur and ended up taking on a lot of other jobs to get by. Most involved closely interacting and connecting with a wide variety of people. From there I moved to Virginia Beach, VA and had a similar experience, although this time finding passion working with different nonprofits in arts education, community programming and social justice advocacy. While all of these experiences are different, combined they sparked a passion that showed me how everything connects back to community in one way or another.
RC: How did you initially get connected with 616 Lofts?
After being in Virginia for a couple of years, I decided to move back to the mitten to be near my family. Right around the time I had made that decision, I used the wonderful world of Facebook to advertise I would be job searching in Grand Rapids. 
To my surprise, an old friend saw my post and emailed her sister (Monica Steimle, 616's Director of Development). Within days I was having a phone conversation about the changes in Grand Rapids, community development and 616 Lofts. Derek Coppess and Monica were looking for someone to connect the residents to other members of the community and to local businesses and to help with 616 Loft’s noble mission of community creation. I like to think my past years of “random experience” are what made me the perfect candidate.
In the winter of 2012 I began my career with 616 Lofts as the Community Manager - later becoming the Director of Community. I love being back in Grand Rapids and feel honored to be able to spend each day finding new ways to think about how we develop areas, foster connections and nurture community growth for 616 Lofts and ultimately for Grand Rapids, too.
RC: What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in Grand Rapids over the years?
CH: I remember leaving Grand Rapids and swearing, “I will NEVER live here again." Ten years went by and I came back to visit from time to time and was constantly wowed by the changes. I remember going to college at GRCC and working downtown I felt the city left much to be desired. It never felt like it had much life or vibrancy to me at that time and finding a decent place to live felt impossible.
When I decided to move back I was confident Grand Rapids was on the path to being the kind of city I would again be proud to call home. I feel like this city has grown in almost every way; the community is open and ready for change, downtown is cleaner, more vibrant and walkable, and people come downtown for more than just the Van Andel Arena. Citizens have a voice and are encouraged to be a part of the city’s growth. GR is not perfect by any means, but there are a lot of positive changes that have happened and I don’t see that coming to an end any time soon.
RC: There are many developments going on in downtown Grand Rapids, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods. In addition to what 616 Development is doing, what are some of your favorite projects that are going on?
CH: I’m a big fan of redevelopment projects and watching life be brought back to underutilized buildings, so I’ve been really excited about what’s going on at The Morton House. It’s such an iconic building with awesome history. I can’t wait to see the energy it brings once it’s occupied again!
RC: Where do you find inspiration?
CH: My inspiration comes from a lot of places. I think I’m always inspired by genuine connections and the design that creates them. Intentional or not, the way our spaces are mapped out encourage or discourage human engagement and interaction. Witnessing that is a constant source of inspiration. I obviously love browsing through blogs. I have a ton of bookmarks for different sites about placemaking, architecture, design, fashion, photography, and travel. You never know where you might find an amazing idea for an interior space or a new way to think about programming a building.
RC: What are some placemaking components that you would like to see more of in the future of our developing city?
CH: I would love to see more programming and management of our public spaces. Successful events and activities have been implemented over the last few years, but I think overall a lot of our public spaces are underutilized and lack the encouragement of public activity. Along those same lines I am excited to see how Grand Rapids moves forward to become a more pedestrian friendly city. I’m anxiously awaiting the implementation of a bike share program! I think we would really benefit from additional people-focused design that is welcoming to more foot and bike traffic in our downtown and near neighborhoods.
RC: Do you have any further advice on how our city’s residents can help encourage this movement?
CH: There are a lot of opportunities for all of us to be a part of shaping the city that Grand Rapids is becoming. The GR Forward planning process is a perfect example; there have been impressive events and forums to discuss the plans and gather ideas and feedback - but it’s up to us to be a part of it and voice our opinions.
RC: What is your favorite public space around town?
CH: Just one? There are so many… Lookout Park, I love the fountain in the GRAM courtyard by Rosa Parks Circle, Riverside Park will forever be a favorite. I think one of my very favorite spaces will always be Ah-Nab-Awen Park though. I remember coming downtown when I was younger to watch the fireworks and see the live music for Celebration On The Grand. There is something special about that area when it’s buzzing with activity.

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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