Television

The Nickelodeon Cartoon That Taught a Generation to Hate Capitalism

He wasn’t just a football-headed fourth grader. He was an urban planning pioneer.

Hey Arnold characters Phoebe, Helga, Gerald, and Arnold photoshopped standing around a real-life block of row houses
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Nickelodeon and Getty Images Plus.

In 1994, the Clinton administration introduced the Empowerment Zone program, an urban policy scheme that provided a few small grants or tax credits to communities deemed financially stressed, along with tax credits for big businesses to operate in poorer communities. While on its face the program’s intention was to financially uplift low-income neighborhoods, it did something much less admirable: It ultimately made the destabilizing process of gentrification seem like a natural response to the urban crises of capitalism, exemplifying an optimistic, neoliberal ideology that would not pan out in reality.

Advertisement

Two years later, President Bill Clinton won his second term in office and, despite a great deal of pushback, went ahead with the increasingly controversial program. The decision left politicians scrambling to draw boundaries to ensure that certain businesses and industries received benefits. (In New York, for example, Rudy Giuliani modified zoning in the Bronx to ensure that Yankee Stadium could receive public investment.) As the president made spurious claims of the program’s success, unemployment rates were rising in some cities across the country. Meanwhile, in areas where the employment rate did improve, it barely curbed poverty rates.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Around the same time, in 1996, a Nickelodeon cartoon set in a neighborhood always at the brink of capital takeover premiered. Hey Arnold, created by Craig Bartlett, went on to capture the hearts and memories of kids who grew up watching these diverse city kids try to make sense of their place in a world—fictional or otherwise—that could often be very cruel. The stories of a group of fourth graders coming of age in the big city at times mimicked the neoliberal objectives of Clinton-era policy: The bullies that Arnold and his friends faced might as well have been the state and private capital, which linked arms in the name of urban renewal while actually threatening the sanctity of working-class life. And although Hey Arnold! did not present itself as a manifesto for a generation that would grow up to cast doubt on the normalcy of capitalist logic, the cartoon did provide a cultural experience that remains salient, 25-plus years on—and one that fans tell me, surprisingly for a cartoon, broached these subjects more blatantly than many are willing to do today.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Hey Arnold! centered on the title character, Arnold, who lived in a boardinghouse run by his grandparents, Phil (a quirky but loving mentor who loves to share personal and family lore with his grandson) and Pookie (an eccentric figure who teeters between senility and profundity and casually sports a black belt in karate). Arnold’s best friend, Gerald, a smooth-talking fourth grader with a mental Rolodex of urban mythology, complemented Arnold’s sometimes purist moral aptitude. And perhaps the show’s most iconic antihero, Helga Pataki, ruthlessly bullied Arnold despite harboring a deep-seated and passionate love for him. She was the child of a neglectful alcoholic, Miriam, and a ruthless, profit-seeking pager salesman, Bob, and often caught in the middle of Bob’s capital exploits and Arnold’s attempts to save the neighborhood from capital takeover.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Season 1’s “The Vacant Lot” was one of the show’s first explicit structural critiques of laying claim to limited urban space. (It premiered just days before the election in November 1996, making the show feel especially prescient for what would become a presidency that championed neoliberal reform.) The episode begins with the neighborhood kids playing pickup baseball in the street, until the game is abruptly cut short by a line drive that hits the traffic light and bounces into a truck that drives away with the ball. As Arnold and Gerald commiserate over the lack of public space available to them in the city, they come across a vacant lot covered in trash. The kids decide to clean up the lot and repurpose it for baseball, and the next day, they are using a metal barrel as the pitcher’s mound and a sewer cap for home plate. Line drive hits ricochet off the brick walls that enclose the space, but the fourth graders finally feel as though they have a space of their own.

Advertisement
Advertisement

That evening, adults in the neighborhood walk past the lot. “You know, I never noticed this, but there’s a lot of space out here,” remarks Mr. Green, the butcher. By morning, they have completely repurposed the space: The adults have built a community garden, horseshoe court, and chicken coop. In just a few minutes, the show models the early stages of gentrification.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The episode seems to appraise what many Clinton-era critics have pointed out: that a focus on renewal would drive urban development in ways that harmed the most vulnerable. Geographers have since explored the long-term deleterious effects of these 1990s schemes. In 2019, for instance, Samuel Stein published Capital City, where he explored how the $217 billion industry that is global real estate follows the movements of a “creative class,” whose members move to poorer neighborhoods after being priced out of more expensive places already overrun by high rent costs. Only then do urban planners see these neighborhoods as “livable”—as Stein puts it, “a euphemism for White people with disposable income”—before tearing down old buildings and erecting new ones that ultimately price out the creative class that made neighborhoods attractive to capital in the first place.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“The Vacant Lot” is a clear-cut example of this chain of events. Arnold and his friends seek to express their creative energies in a city that has a shortage of public space for poor and working-class people. When they do lay claim to a place, a group with more power and resources (in this case and many others, adults) repurposes it for its own ends. However, the kids and the adults are ultimately able to discuss the rights to the lot, resulting in the adults actually working to give the kids an even better ballfield than before. The working-class adults occupying the space—the mailman, the butcher, the boarders, etc.—are by no means stand-ins for corporate capital; that comes in later episodes. But they begin to lay some of the groundwork for Hey Arnold’s conception of urban life. More importantly, as viewers, we empathize with the kids: They worked hard to create a small place of their own to live a simple, good life with leisure. When it’s stripped away, we experience their angst vicariously.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Other episodes continue to make subtle, profound arguments for the preservation of urban class dynamics. In Season 2’s “Save the Tree,” for example, Bob Pataki plans to tear down the neighborhood’s oldest tree, Mighty Pete, where many locals congregate, for the sake of building a beeper emporium. Bob notes, in a similar fashion, that it would be an ideal place for capital gain. The children end up occupying the tree, and it’s not until he sees that his own daughter is one of the protesters that Bob is willing to halt the project. There’s also the Season 3 episode “Casa Paradiso,” in which a man who, as he puts it, “represents an eccentric billionaire with an obsessive interest in purchasing old, broken-down buildings, commonly known in real estate circles as fixer-uppers,” approaches Grandpa Phil on the steps of the boardinghouse. Even in a cartoon world full of fun, imaginative, vibrant personalities (the kids are always scheming and, well, being kids in the midst of everything), an ominous specter of displacement hovers over its future.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Over the course of its five-season run, Hey Arnold! began reflecting anxieties surrounding gentrification and capital expansion in more salient and overt ways. This came to a head in 2002, when the series spun off a theatrical film. Like “The Vacant Lot,” Hey Arnold!: The Movie opens with the kids playing street baseball; the neighborhood is depicted as at peace, if a little dilapidated. But the film quickly shifts into violent images of wrecking balls tearing through homes. Shortly thereafter, we learn that FutureTech Industries CEO Alphonse Perrier du von Scheck has plans to redevelop the entire neighborhood into a high-rise shopping mall. The city mayor, in the typical neoliberal capital fashion of the 1990s, endorses the development as a “natural progression” and good for the city. Scheck defends his business plan against the residents’ protests as in service of the city, to lead to the “end of urban decay.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Arnold organizes community resistance efforts, like neighborhood petitions and a block party, which meet violent suppressions with escalating levels of force, escalating from state to military (it is a cartoon, after all). Ultimately, Arnold, Gerald, and Helga team up and use the many skills of their neighbors to find a government document that reveals their neighborhood’s landmark status. But the overt social motifs don’t fall on deaf ears: Neighborhoods are at constant risk from brutal capital investment, and the state has come to play a central role in enabling a preordained form of gentrification to take hold.

Hey Arnold!: The Movie was supposed to be one of two Hey Arnold! films, but it turned out to be the beginning of the end for the series. After five seasons, negotiations between Bartlett and Nickelodeon spiraled because of the show’s subpar ratings, and, adding to a longer list of inner disputes, Bartlett left Nickelodeon. Production concluded in 2001, but the network released the final episodes over the course of the next several years.

Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s telling, then, that when Nickelodeon decided to revive some of its 1990s cartoons, it chose to start with Hey Arnold. Even before the 2017 release of the follow-up TV special Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, think pieces about the show’s urban adventures and character depth abounded. Fan art, websites, and online communities have persisted throughout the years. Bartlett has often remarked upon the intense loyalty of longtime fans, and said in an interview that there was always an interest in bringing the show back: “As soon as the show got canceled, and all from 2002 until 2012, that decade, there was always some interest and people trying to form groups and make petitions,” which grew stronger with social media and podcasts.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Take Football Head aficionados Corey Vaughan, a photographer, and Adam Samaha, an educator. The pair of thirtysomethings met working at a brewery and bonded over their love of the show early in their friendship. In 2015, they launched Hey Arnold Hey: A Bold Kid Podcast, dedicated to deconstructing episodes, characters, and themes. Initially, Vaughan would bring in specific knowledge about art, literature, and faith, and Samaha would speak to themes of anti-capitalism. Over time, however, the pair’s conversations led them to reconsider their own ideological evolutions and how they related to public space—reflections that furthered their left-leaning political views.

“Growing up, I didn’t go to the city much,” Vaughan, who’s from the suburbs outside of Los Angeles, told me. “I would go to the Hollywood Bowl or Dodger Stadium, but truly my strongest and most vivid understanding of the city was through Hey Arnold. You would see the poverty and riches of people in the same episode, and compared to other kid’s shows the city had a certain embodiment. They actually lived within it in a specific way.” He says that rewatching and reflecting upon Hey Arnold! episodes that pit art against commerce helped him, as an adult, to understand the way capitalism so often stomps out vitality within cities.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Another podcast hosted by viewers who grew up during the Clinton administration shows that Vaughan and Samaha are not alone in finding their progressive awakening through the Nickelodeon hit. Last February, Emily Csuy, Cody Narveson, and Harry Mackin launched Stoop Kidz!: A Hey Arnold! Podcast, in which they deconstruct the show’s implicit sociological themes. As politically aware young adults, the friends are interested in exploring the origins of their leanings. The mutual starting point for their awakenings, they discovered, may have been the slice-of-life cartoon.

“The thing that really moves me most about Hey Arnold! is not only its more obvious anti-capitalist messaging, but that it makes a great point about how your community—neighbors, boarders, schoolmates—are really an intimate part of your life in a deeply communal way,” Mackin, a Minneapolis-based writer, said. “The show is grounded in the idea of coming together. Even though Arnold is at the front of the show, he is always acting in a community context, with people he knows well.”

Advertisement

It’s not so much that Hey Arnold! radicalized millennials in their youth, it seems, but that it infused their inchoate political and social consciousnesses with ways to respond to their material realities later on. A lot of the rhetoric of liberal capitalism—that it is driven by natural turns in the market—was flipped on its head in Hey Arnold. In the show, capitalism was nothing more than the destroyer of fun. It threatened not only the displacement of the city’s working class, but also the places in which young viewers played. And as millennials are now feeling many of the neoliberal structural changes of the 1990s, including being unable to buy homes or even rent in cities, it’s no surprise that the majority of young Americans now look unfavorably upon capitalism—just as their favorite cartoon characters did two decades ago.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Hey Arnold! is not a perfect anti-capitalist show. Sometimes it embraces a very pro-work stance, espousing the virtues of loving one’s occupation. And sometimes it gets labor struggles very wrong.  However, there are millennial leftists who remember this show fondly, returned to it, and found meaning in it having a place in the development of their political consciousnesses. Rewatching Hey Arnold! now does more than provide a heaping dose of nostalgia. It foregrounds how our lives, from the lots we wanted to play in decades ago to the housing markets we cannot enter now, are part of larger structural concerns that resonated with us as kids.

Advertisement