Nickelodeon’s Hey, Arnold!—an animated sitcom about a fourth grader who lives with his grandparents in a boardinghouse—turns 25 this year. Show creator Craig Bartlett credits Portland as partial inspiration for the show’s fictional Hillwood.
There are, admittedly, some pretty compelling fan arguments that Arnold’s shenanigans took place elsewhere—the New York camp cites yellow cabs, iconic stoops, and the Brooklyn Bridge, while residents of Washington, Bartlett’s home state, point out references to the Skookumchuck River and a “Welcome to Washington State” sign in Hey Arnold!’s “Road Trip” episode. But Portland’s been mostly left out of the discourse, even though Bartlett, who attended college here and worked in Will Vinton’s animation studio, says Stumptown also has claim to Hillwood’s design. We talked to Bartlett and nailed him on some specifics.
The Burnside Bridge
Before Portland’s efforts to make the bridge more “earthquake ready” refigured its features, you can peep the city’s north-south dividing bridge as you enter Hillwood’s downtown. Bartlett attended the Museum Art School (now the Pacific Northwest College of Art) in Portland for three years, and as a result, he says, “I’ll forever associate art and art-making with Portland.” His days of wandering the city with an old Yashica box camera still find a way of slipping into his animations, he says. When Nickelodeon picked up Hey, Arnold! as a full series, Bartlett collected his black-and-white photos of Portland and gave them to the show’s artists as inspiration for Arnold’s fictional world.
Who wouldn’t want to grow up surrounded by ornate multicolored Victorian houses? Well, Arnold got to live our dream, Bartlett says: “I remember thinking that [area] would be a great setting for a cartoon show—what kind of a life would that be for a kid that grew up there?”
Eagle-eyed Portlanders may have clocked this already. In the episode “The Pigeon Man,” Arnold befriends a man who—you guessed it—has a bunch of pigeons, and at one point he tells Arnold, “I’ve seen you and your friends around the neighborhood, Arnold. The kids reminded me of me when I was growing up on 23rd Street.”
Other places may have their own claims on Hillwood, but take it from Bartlett and us—Hey, Arnold! just wouldn’t be the same without Portland.