Hey Arnold! Animating the Benefits of Urban Design
Posted by Roobs on August 23, 2010
One of the best cartoons ever made was called Hey Arnold! on Nickelodeon. It ran five seasons from 1996 to 2004. To this day, it remains one of my all-time favorite childhood cartoons for its mature, yet incredibly accessible story lines, symbolism, music and heart.
Hey Arnold revolved around the lives of Arnold (last name never revealed) and Helga Pataki, Arnolds secret admirer and nemesis. Like any good kid show, it tried to teach life lessons. Many of these were lessons such as standing up to bullies, tolerance, leadership, and first loves. The lessons were taught in a slightly more mature way compared to other cartoons. And for all the great aspects of this lovable cartoon, one of its greatest and under-appreciated strengths was was it’s setting.
Set in a city setting, Hey Arnold! was one of the only cartoons to depict life in a dense urban environment. Even the show’s music director, Jim Lang, used jazz as the primary theme music for Hey Arnold! which gave the show even more of that mature, urban feel while still maintaining its child-like accessibility. (Scroll to end for soundtrack clip!). Arnold’s character utilized everything that makes a city great, from his constant use of the local bus and walking around his very livable neighborhood, to the fact that everything from the butcher, florist and grocery store was within walking distance of his home.
Hey Arnold depicted the end-result of the kind of urban design that America has strayed from but now planners wish to re-create: a walkable neighborhood where walking and transit are more viable means of mobility than the automobile. But beyond that, it fosters a kind of social interaction that is often ignored when planners and the public discuss urban planning. The environment we wish to create and animated in the Hey Arnold! cartoon helps foster relationships with multi-ethnic, multi-income families where individuals (in this case, young kids) co-mingle; crossing many social boundaries to form a cultural narrative unique to dense urban settings.
The city’s name is not mentioned until late in the the show’s series. The city is called “Hillwood” located in Washington State but closely resembles New York City, with many landmarks borrowed from the real American city. The creator, Craig Bartlett, stated Hillwood is based off Seattle, Portland and New York City, all locations he spent time in and all with a wealth of quality urban design and transit. But one can recognize many aspects of Hillwood in their own city.
Wikipedia states that the sky-way shown in many episodes behind Arnold’s home (right) is likely the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, WA. This due to the fact that Seattle is Craig Bartlett’s hometown and he said he based the show off cities he spent time in. However, having spent the last six years of my life living in Berkeley, CA, I see more resemblence of the skyway in the show to the Cypress Freeway Viaduct in Oakland, CA (bottom-right).
The dense design of Arnold’s neighborhood meant that the area was geographically small but filled with a collection of unique characters that can only be found in large and uniquely American urban areas.
Arnold lived with his grandmother and grandfather in the boarding home they managed called “Sunset Arms” along with a multi-ethnic group of boarders including: Oskar and Suzie Kokashka, a Russian or Ukranian man and his wife who often fight in numerous episodes only to get back together by the end, Mr. Hyunh, a quiet Vietnamese man who came to America after the Vietnam War, and Ernie, a short chunky man apparently of Italian heritage who works in demolition.
One of the best episodes was the Christmas episode where Arnold is selected to be Mr. Hyunhs secret Santa and is forced to find him the perfect gift. During the episode, we learn Mr. Hyunhs background on how he came to America. I don’t want to give away the entire story but you can watch the full length episode here.
Arnold’s school, P.S 118, was the primary setting to meet the kids of Arnold’s neighborhood: Arnold’s best friend, Gerald Johanssen, a middle-class African American kid who was the keeper of all urban legends and tales of Hillwood. Helga Pataki, Arnold’s secret admirer and nemesis who comes from an upper-middle-class family where her ambitious father continuously tries to build his beeper (I said this show was in the 90’s) empire, Pheobe, Helga’s best friend who’s father is Japanese and mother is White from the South. Rhonda, the rich girl of the group and fashionista. Herald, a pudgy bully and also Jewish. There are many other lovable characters in the show that continue this wide spectrum of backgrounds and ethnicity, all who make up Arnold’s friends and the neighborhood.
Like in many large American cities, school yellow bus service is discontinued in favor of utilizing local city bus service. Arnold always took the city bus to school, as well as almost every other location in town and loves it (he sometimes took the subway to Downtown. One episode devoted to Arnold and friends being trapped in a subway tunnel). He loves the bus so much that one episode is completely devoted to Arnold learning martial arts from his grandmother so he may take revenge on the bully who stole his beloved student bus pass.
In another episode, after years of playing baseball out in the street and having to move frequently to let cars pass, Arnold and Gerald discover a rare vacant lot in the neighborhood and decide to turn it into their own baseball field. The episode goes on to show how other neighbors also discover the lot and they fight the kids over its use as either a baseball field or a community lot. In either case, the episode depicts the importance of open, common space in neighborhoods as they provide a focal point for community activity; whether that be kids playing baseball, or other community members playing chess or growing a garden.
Further revealing the macro world formed by urban design, during an episode where Arnold enters a neighborhood eating contest, he is told of a contestant who has the stomach (pun intended) to beat Arnold at eating. Helga goes on to taunt Arnold about this threat, nicknamed “The Disposal”. When Arnold and Gerald state they have never heard of this kid, Helga tells them to spend time in PS-119’s neighborhood, implying that they spend much of their time in their own; contributing to the idea that the geographically small neighborhood fostered it’s own unique culture that is separate, though not not in conflict, from it’s neighbors.
Also, the urban setting allowed the characters to engage in a cultural narrative not found in other cartoons. The situations Arnold was placed in were more adult than other cartoons and played out more metaphorically by using, sometimes odd, storylines. For example, Arnold exhibits tolerance in one of the great episodes that had Arnold helping “Pigeon Man”, an urban legend told by Arnold’s friend, Gerald. Pigeon Man is tormented for being different when local bullies discover his real existence and destroy his rooftop home. Arnold tries to help pigeon man restore his home, dismayed by the reaction of his fellow neighbors who would attack something they do not understand. By doing so, Arnold teaches Pigeon Man that humanity is still capable of kindness.
Another episode has Arnold facing off with another urban legend manifested: “Stoop Kid”. When playing football in the streets, Arnold kicks the ball and it ends up on the Stoop Kid’s stoop. According to Gerald (keeper of legends), Stoop Kid has been living on his stoop since birth and never leaves. Stoop Kids mean demeanor towards others means they wont be getting their ball back. Arnold befriends Stoop Kid and learns that he really fears the unknown; all that is beyond his stoop. Arnold convinces Stoop Kid to overcome his fear and take a step off his stoop; a step away from his own fear.
Hey Arnold was truly a great cartoon that I am sorry to see has not been replicated today. The show depicted all that is truly good of sharing your life and having tolerance for others. It opened people up to the idea that, maybe not everyone is like me and that is not simply ok, but beneficial for a rich social environment.
Hey Arnold may have served as an ideal world, the perfect display of design and function in planning. But is this not the essence of great urban design? It is beyond the actions of choosing where to put streets, whether there are bike lanes on that street, bus lanes, zone density, parks etc. It reveals the true social benefits of knowing how urban design can affect the real lives of the community it serves. Great design can foster a unique living experience and manner in which each resident may share their life stories with their friends and others.
Those with a Netflix account can watch the complete Hey Arnold! series. Highly recommended for your children or your own nostalgia.