Cincinnatians love to extoll the virtues of neighborhoods. The City of Cincinnati claims 52, including tiny Sedamsville and large Mt. Washington, influential Hyde Park and struggling South Cumminsville.

Beyond the city, suburban communities also embrace the language of neighborhood. In Hamilton County alone, residents fiercely defend the 38 independent cities and villages, not to mention 12 townships, some of which have adopted official neighborhood maps.

Though we may think neighborhoods are essential to urban life, in fact, for almost a century after its founding, the term “neighborhood” was not part of the local vocabulary.

Even as the population boomed after 1835 and Cincinnati emerged as the sixth largest city in America by 1850, almost everyone was packed into the Basin between the river and the base of the hills surrounding the city. Those with means could afford to cluster close to the center. The most desirable address was east Fourth Street, close to the Public Landing, the real city center, but above the flood plain. Those with lesser means tended to be pushed to the edges, whether the flood-prone West End, the valley east of Broadway or the territory north of the canal, which became known as Over-the-Rhine.

But these were only tendencies. Every block throughout the Basin was home for native born and immigrant, German and Irish, rich and poor, white and black. In addition, small shops, offices, workshops and factories mixed together with the residences. No specialized land use and no zoning until 1924. Cincinnati leaders simply divided the city into political wards defined by straight lines on a map.

Beginning with the opening of the Suspension Bridge in 1867 and the introduction of inclines that could scale the hillsides surrounding the Basin in the 1870s, Cincinnatians undertook a process that led to the fundamental reorganization of urban space into neighborhoods and a downtown. In the process, they transformed the way residents interacted with each other.

Not surprisingly, the wealthy led the change, moving to a series of hilltop suburbs like Mt. Auburn, Clifton, Hyde Park and beyond. Middle class and working classes followed, sometimes filling in subdivisions near the wealthy, and sometimes creating whole neighborhoods like Pleasant Ridge, Price Hill and Oakley.

This same process played out in other American cities, but with a significant difference. In places like Cleveland, Chicago and Milwaukee, the flood of foreign immigrants from southern and eastern Europe between 1880 and World War I resulted in ethnically identified neighborhoods. But no longer a magnet for immigrants, Cincinnati ended up with just a few pockets of ethnic settlement—small Italian enclaves in South Fairmount and Walnut Hill, a Lebanese community in the Bottoms—but not ethnically defined neighborhoods. The new Cincinnati neighborhoods were defined more by socio-economic status and religious identity than by ethnicity.

Race was a different matter. As thousands of former slaves and their children streamed North in search of their American Dream in the early 1900s, they were channeled into the West End as the Jewish and other white residents joined the scramble to the hilltops. A half century later, when over 45,000 residents of the West End were displaced after 1960 to make way for I-75 and Queensgate, African Americans filled into Walnut Hills, Avondale, Evanston and other older neighborhoods as whites moved father out beyond the city limits.

Life in the new city of neighborhoods was fundamentally different than what had existed earlier. Underlying the neighborhood building process was a sorting and self-segregation.

No matter what sophisticated criteria one wants to use to define neighborhood, it is essentially a place where I live with people just like me. Who is “just like me” has changed over time—more professional and middle class African Americans are now welcome in some formerly white neighborhoods—but the underlying principle remains constant.

In the last two decades, an increasing number of middle class suburbanites have re-valued living in places like Over-the-Rhine. These urban pioneers often express a desire to live in a neighborhood that is racially and economically mixed, not like the places they grew up. But overlaid with 140 years of experience of neighborhood living, the popular language of neighborhood actually undermines those dreams and instead feeds the temptation to displace those who are not like us.

The suburban neighborhood is a fixture of American life. For those looking for a true alternative, we not only need to embrace 19th century center city architecture, but consciously develop a new ethic and rhetoric that values diversity and inclusion.