Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

How did your hometown shape you? We asked Philly-lovin’ transplants about where they grew up

Well-known Philadelphians tell us about their first hometowns.

Clockwise from top left: Rev. Mark Tyler, Michael Solomonov, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Amir Johnson, Sara Benincasa, and Blanka Zizka.
Clockwise from top left: Rev. Mark Tyler, Michael Solomonov, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Amir Johnson, Sara Benincasa, and Blanka Zizka.Read moreStaff/AP

Everyone has a hometown. Even those who moved around a lot have that primal "first place" – the home base that shapes who we are, and how we look at the world.

Because they are inextricably linked to childhood, hometowns leave powerful imprints — for better or worse. In our memories, they never change or alter.  Unfortunately, Inquirer writer Sarah Todd's hometown was recently altered out of existence by the California wildfires. Her moving piece about Paradise, Calif.  prompted us to reach out to other well-known Philadelphians to tell us how they were shaped by their hometown. Here are their stories.

Restaurateur Michael Solomonov on Squirrel Hill:

I moved to Pittsburgh when I was three, so my formative years were in Squirrel Hill. I think back on that time after everything that happened there a few weeks ago. The village that it takes to raise a child is very evident there. Everybody was invested in each other, but I didn't appreciate it growing up. It was so small and everybody knew who you were. Now, I see it as idyllic.

» READ MORE: Read more from Michael Solomonov.

76er Amir Johnson on South Central Los Angeles:

Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, a certain set of rules had to be followed. The right colors, the right clothes, the right kind of hat.

» READ MORE: Read more from Amir Johnson.

Wilma Theater's Blanka Zizka on Mlada Boleslav in the Czech Republic

At the age of 14, I watched Soviet army tanks roll into my city. I watched people crying, throwing rocks, and shaking their fists. I threw rocks as well. Two years later, during my literature class, our professor ordered us to tear out pages from our textbooks. These offensive pages contained lessons about writers whose work was publicly denounced as ideologically subversive by the new pro-Soviet government.

» READ MORE: Read more from Blanka Zizka.

Comedian Sara Benincasa on Flemington, N.J.:

When you tell somebody you grew up in New Jersey, people assume certain things – namely, that your father was the model for Tony Soprano, or that you have a heavy accent that sounds kind of like Brooklyn by way of a kazoo on steroids, or that your home was wedged on the corner of Chemical Factory Lane and Smokestack Way.

» READ MORE: Read more from Sara Benincasa.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's Yannick Nézet-Séguin on Montreal:

Montreal provided me with a strong foundation of acceptance and inclusion. As a child, I was immersed in a city where half of the population spoke French while the other half spoke English, and we were able to coexist smoothly. This bilingual lifestyle not only nurtured an organic acceptance of others, but it also encouraged creativity.

» READ MORE: Read more from Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Reverend Mark Tyler of the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Oakland:

Like Philly, Oakland is tough and the people are resilient. We rise and fall like it is a matter of life and death on every Raider win or loss. Oakland today is being tested greatly: a homeless crisis from a lack of affordable housing and gentrification, wages that can't keep up with the cost of living, and far too many homicides. But with all of the challenges, it is still a place of great strength and optimism.

» READ MORE: Read more from Rev. Mark Tyler.

Cartoonist Alli Katz on Chicago:

» READ MORE: See more from Alli Katz. 

What’s your hometown story?

Tell us how your hometown shaped you. Send 150 words about where you grew up and what it means to you now to Some answers may be featured on and in the Inquirer.