Nickelodeon 90’s cartoons largely reflect the suburban world that much of its young audience grew up in.1 Think Spongebob’s Bikini Bottom, or the Rugrats’ California single-family residential neighborhood. One show, Hey Arnold, stands out from the rest, taking its viewers out of the suburbs for a trip downtown. During a time when many young Millennials had experiences of the urban core in decline, this cartoon showed us the potential for having fun in the city. As a kid, I was fascinated by the scenery and by the apparent freedom granted to the characters to move around and be independent. This was my first glimpse of what an urban center could be.
Arnold and his friends have the kind of lifestyle that today’s planners dream of creating. This nine-year-old’s home is Hillwood City, a fictional amalgam of Portland, Seattle, and Brooklyn. Arnold’s parents are absent from his life, so he lives with his spunky grandparents in a boardinghouse inhabited by neighbors of varying ages, races, nationalities and income-levels. Arnold knows every one of them, in part because they often eat meals together. His friends all live in the neighborhood, and they are able to walk by themselves to school, to get ice cream or to go down the block to play baseball. Local business owners keep their eyes on the street and quietly ensure everything stays calm and copacetic. A cool jazz beat accompanies the cast as they stroll through their lives. The city feels safe, vibrant and romantic, and the viewer can’t help but want to join these kids in their city draped in sunset. It’s a Jane Jacobs-inspired cityscape of a well-connected, vibrant, urban village.
More than structures, a city’s fabric consists of its inhabitants. The major theme of Hey Arnold is about how people learn to live together, celebrate their differences and help each other get through life’s challenges. It has a timeless message of tolerance and unity. The show explores such themes as ethnic heritage, neighborhood character, urban decline and revival, and even one boy’s addiction – to chocolate. “Stoop Kid,” is an episode about a boy who sits on his front stoop and taunts passersby, until it is discovered by the neighborhood kids that he is actually deathly afraid of leaving his front porch. Some turn to taunt him back.
Instead of following the crowd, Arnold helps Stoop Kid overcome his phobia. In the end, many in the neighborhood gather to cheer as Stoop Kid finally lets go of his fear of the unknown and steps down. Most episodes follow the same pattern, where a new character at first may seem scary or difficult to relate to, until Arnold decides to get to know them and finds out that despite appearances, they really aren’t so different.
Let the rest of this visual tour through Arnold’s city be an argument to share this cartoon with the kids in your life, or revisit it on your own to re-imagine downtown through the eyes of a child.
Hillwood is a made-up, but truly great, American city that has inspired many Millennials to dream of more than what the suburbs can offer. Hey Arnold is available on Netflix and Hulu.
1 Schneider, William. July 1992. “The Suburban Century Begins.” The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/politics/ecbig/schnsub.htm.
Featured Image: The City of Hillwood, from Hey Arnold. Photo Credit: elitedaily.com/humor/hey-arnold-a 1
About the author: Kyrsten French is a DCRP master’s student specializing in Land Use and Environmental Planning. Her main area of interest is understanding and communicating how the city works as a financial entity, with the belief that knowing the true cost of sprawl will prompt leaders to avoid it. Before coming to DCRP, Kyrsten went to the Ohio State University and studied philosophy and Chinese. She went on to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2014.