Series creator Craig Bartlett explains how he built the cartoon city that every ‘90s kid dreamed of living in.
When it comes to life in the city, perhaps no cartoon has dreamed as big as Hey Arnold! While the rest of Nickelodeon’s ‘90s lineup dwelled in suburbia, here was a football-headed fourth grader who lived in a crowded boarding house under a freeway overpass, who could just climb up to the roof whenever he wanted to take in the skyline. At any moment, Arnold was just a fire escape away from an urban adventure with his friends and classmates.
After more than a decade off the air, Arnold is coming back to TV this week for Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie. In the show’s timeline, just one year has passed. But Hillwood, their fictional city, has clearly changed. Just like the the real-life places it’s based on, Arnold’s historic neighborhood has been discovered by hipsters.
“There's more outdoor cafes than there used to be,” creator Craig Bartlett says. From the show’s start in 1996, the look and feel of Hillwood reflected the places he knew best. He grew up in Seattle and attended art school in Portland—both of which influenced the grunge city pastiche throughout his five-season show, which concluded production by 2002.
The latest two-part installment, airing on Nickelodeon, is a bit of a departure. This time, Arnold and his classmates go on a trip to a fictional Central American city called San Lorenzo, which just happens to be where Arnold’s long-lost parents were last seen. But before they set off, we get a glimpse of the old neighborhood they saved from the bulldozers of urban renewal in the series’ first feature film. What we see this time around might just be the early signs of gentrification.
CityLab recently spoke with Bartlett by phone as his team put the finishing touches on the new film. We discussed what inspired the cartoon’s metropolitan setting, what’s changed about cities since then, and how the show influenced a new generation of city dwellers. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
One of my colleagues picked Hillwood as the fictional city they would like to move to and pointed out that most other Nickelodeon shows were set in suburbs. What made you think of setting Hey Arnold! in a city?
We wanted to make our own little corner of the kids’ entertainment cartoon world. We asked how we could be a little bit different, and the setting seemed like an easy solution. Because most cartoons make it suburban or minimal and make the characters really foregrounded.
I was a big fan of Charlie Brown. When the show’s Christmas special came out when I was kid, that had a huge influence on me. I wanted to make a show with a group of kids just like that, so when I pitched the show to Nickelodeon, I said, “This will be a Charlie Brown for the ’90s.” It will be different, adults will actually be in the show, they wouldn't just be off-camera making that trumpet noise.
Charles Schulz was a genius, but his settings were always really minimal. You saw a little bit of furniture in the living room or details in the yard and they’re out playing baseball in a blank field. And I just thought, let’s do something really lush and detailed and really specific and make it about a city.
How did you imagine what that city would look like?
I’m a big fan of architecture and I grew up in Seattle when I came of age. I was walking around the funkiest parts of downtown Seattle taking pictures in places like the Pioneer Square District. I moved to Portland to go to art school, and I continued to live in a funky old building, in a funky neighborhood like the Pearl District. And I continued taking pictures. So I thought I could make it really specifically grungy, and that would be the theme.
It’s a modern city—a cool ethnic mix. There’s a lot of different ethnicities all living together, and the music reflected that too. Jim Lang [the show’s music director] was working with me. We loved the jazz of Charlie Brown, but we knew we had to update it, so we made it a ’90s kind of jazz. Jim put together a cassette mix tape of acid jazz, which was kind of hip-hop beats and traditional jazz instruments playing over it, sax and trumpet. I said, “that’s perfect.” I’d been listening to a lot of Miles Davis and I said, “Let’s do that muted trumpet and the cool hip-hop beats,” and we made this funky new sound that felt very urban.
When I first started the show, Beck had just come out with “Loser,” Mellow Gold, that first album. It sounds like when you’re in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven and a car goes by with music booming out the windows, and somebody else is playing mariachi in another car and you’re hearing these different sounds blended together in the modern experience of living in a city. I thought most of the kids around the country lived in cities and that this would be relatable.
Did you take any effort to study architecture to pick what went into the show?
Yeah. Absolutely. When I started season one, I actually made a trip back to Seattle, Portland, and Tacoma. I went around and shot black-and-white pictures of building details—you know, cool window treatments, door treatments, fire escapes, rooftops. And I called it “Hey Arnold’s Little Book of Grunge.” It was just a little Xerox book that I made for all the artists for the show. I said, “Let this be your starting-off point.”
Brian Marc was art director on the first season of Hey Arnold! and Brian and I had grown up in the same neighborhood of Seattle. In fact, we both went to Hillwood Elementary—that’s how that name slipped into the show. We would talk about old buildings and the era of architecture in old Seattle and old Portland, which is turn-of-the-century, and that was our starting point.
What other cities influenced Hillwood?
It’s a northern city with a little bit of Seattle, a little bit of Portland, and a little bit of Brooklyn. There’s certain aspects of New York that made it in—for one, the stoops. But whenever we needed a big-city feature, we usually borrowed from New York—there’s a copy of the Brooklyn Bridge, and we even showed the Twin Towers. We also used Chicago’s Wrigley Field for a couple baseball episodes, but called it “Quigley Field.”
So many of the people in Hey Arnold! are characters that could only exist in a city. Did you think about how the city shaped characters?
Yeah, a lot of those we’d considered the urban legends, like Stoop Kid, Pigeon Man, Sewer King. That became a genre of story that we’d go back to. We made sure every season had a couple of those. It was fun in every way because it meant there would be an urban adventure. They were going to get into some kind of danger or trouble. We always had Gerald as our keeper of the tales—he could tell the urban legend at the start of the show and then Arnold ends up leading them on some quest to find the answer, to get to the bottom of it.
In the first episode, Arnold and Gerald take a bus downtown. There’s an ironic refrain, “People downtown sure are friendly,” that highlights the negative perceptions of cities back then. How’d you square the show with people’s perceptions?
I knew I was idealizing the urban experience. People would talk about funky rundown urban decay, and that would be a negative. They would say cities are dirty and noisy and overcrowded and there’s crime, but I was like, “No, I'm going to make this an idealized setting where Arnold and the kids have tremendous freedom because they live in the city.”
Arnold lives in that supercool attic room with that fun ladder up his wall and he goes out the skylight and he looks out at the cityscape. I really wanted his room to be very urban. The idea was, Arnold can come and go. He doesn’t have any parental supervision—his mom and dad are missing and his grandma and grandpa are pretty easy going. So I made it this fantasy city life where he could go out the fire escape and meet his friends in the middle of the night and go on some adventure. That was really idealized, but I think that’s how cartoons get to be, because you’re basically making something aspirational for kids where they say, “Gosh, I wish I could live like that.”
To the kids, it’s freedom and adventure. I tried to model Arnold as a kid who sees beauty in ugliness. Someone might look at an old boarding house that’s rundown and under a freeway overpass, and they might think of that as ugly—but we were always trying to make it as if it was really beautiful. We showed it at magic hour, at sunset, at night. That was our point, Arnold sees beauty in ugliness.
One episode that makes that vision clear is “The Vacant Lot” episodes, where the kids turn a place that’s kind of a dump into a baseball field. It reminds me of what’s come into vogue as “placemaking” these days.
When we went to reboot the series, we knew were going to go back and redesign everything because the whole thing is high definition digital compared to when we first started, where the screen size was different and it was analog.
So we went back and redesigned it: A couple years have gone by, the neighborhood has gotten a little bit more gentrified, it’s been discovered by hipsters. There’s more funny boutiques that have popped in where it was just sort of a rundown building. We had fun with that. Arnold’s neighborhood is a little bit more discovered than it used to be.
Still beats being bulldozed by Future Tech Industries, like they thought in the first movie.
Yeah, they managed to defeat Future Tech Industries, so they kept it a vintage neighborhood. If you remember, in that movie, a couple of things got condemned and boarded up, so we thought that’s what might have happened. They didn’t get torn down, but hipsters have put new bistros in those places. There’s more outdoor cafes than there used to be.
So many pieces of city infrastructure function as a plot device, whether it’s the kids taking a bus or a subway. What did you want to say about those things as a fabric of urban life?
I wanted to show that these kids don’t have a lot of money. They’re not completely poor, but they’re growing up in working-class families, so public transportation is the option you take. It’s great in a series that you can have a funny opening to a story take place on the bus where the kids are going to school or they’re going on a longer trip somewhere on the bus.
The subway, the trains, those things are a feature of urban life. If kids watching didn’t grow up in the city, I wanted them to think, “Wow, I want to go to a city where I can ride a subway.” That was my experience when I first went to New York.
Another thing that strikes me is that Hillwood exhibits the kind of diversity that we now tout about cities. So many of the Sunset Arms boarders [where Arnold lives] are from a wide array of backgrounds that you wouldn’t see in suburbia.
Right, and as soon as we started, the pitch was very simple: Arnold lives in a rundown old boarding house under a freeway overpass with his grandma and grandpa and a bunch of eccentric boarders. I tried to make them from different ethnicities, different places. Oskar’s from the Czech Republic, Mr. Hyunh’s from Vietnam. It was the same with all the kids, we have a couple of Jewish kids, some black kids, some Asian kids and so on. It was meant to show, it’s no big deal and everybody just lives together and you show everyone getting along.
The episode in the series that stuck out to me was the “Heat/Snow” episode—where the summer and winter drives the story in the city.
We nicknamed that one the “Weather Channel” episode because all we asked was, “What’s the city like when it’s too hot? What’s the city like when it’s covered in snow?” The answer is a challenge but also ends up being really fun.
In “Heat,” the kids having that riot and trying to flip the ice cream truck—most kids thought that was pretty hilarious. And “Snow” ends with them playing ice hockey in the street making their own kind of ice rink. You’ll notice that’s the second half: “Heat” is a little bit more dire and “Snow” ends in that kind of fantasy, everyone skating and having a ball. Those were very urban. When we first started the show, we really set out to make the city a character.
What are you most proud of for influencing my generation’s view of cities?
I think it’s that just because something’s rundown and old doesn’t mean it’s ugly. Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder. A kid modeling the behavior of a kid like Arnold—he never quite comes out and says, like, “I know you guys think this is ugly, but I think it’s beautiful.” You just see by his example, taking an artist’s point of view of how we frame a place. It’s like me as a kid going around with a camera framing these urban scenes and my mind making them really beautiful. That’s the way I wanted to frame the look at the modern city.