Dr. Felton Earls’ research at the Harvard School of Public Health on
The Most Important Influence In a Neighborhood
Ten years ago The New York Times ran a story I never forgot, a story that confirmed my sense that Love Cemetery mattered in ways that we hadn’t thought of, and that it matters to a larger community than we had yet realized. I cut out the story about Dr. Felton Earls, then at Harvard’s School of Public Health, and his extraordinary research project in criminology. Dr. Earls is now Professor Emeritus at Harvard Medical School. Felton Earls ought to be a household name.
By 2004, when Dan Hurley’s feature on Dr. Earls came out in the Times, Earls had already spent a decade running one of the longest, most expensive, and well-researched studies of criminology to date. Backed by ten years and over $51 million of research, Dr. Earls, concluded that the most important influence in a neighborhood …. is a neighbor’s willingness to act on behalf of the benefit of another’s need, “particularly for the benefit of another’s children.”
Though his research was on the development of criminal behaviour, Dr. Earls noted that his background is public health, that his concern was ultimately on discerning and documenting what makes a community work. What makes the difference? Why does one lot in a community get transformed into a communal garden, while another becomes a breeding place for rats?
What Dr. Earls and his researchers documented over the years, painstakingly, on video, was that the deciding factor is the neighbor — your neighbor, my neighbor – the neighbor who is willing to act on behalf of someone else, especially on behalf of someone else’s child.
In the full article (not what came up in the Times Archives this morning), Earls talked about the effect of the willing neighbor, about how equally strong an influence the individual is, as strong as a genetic influence or economics He used the term “robust” to describe the neighbor’s effect.
“It’s all about taking action, about making an effort,” Dr. Earls said as though to say there’s no magic, there’s only effort and taking action, robust effort.
Thank you for following our effort, our action. Every post you read, every message you forward, post, and circulate maximizes ours — Resurrecting Love!
Here’s the 2004 article on Dr. Earls by Dan Hurley, from The New York Times Archives: “SCIENTIST AT WORK — Felton Earls, On Crime As Science (A Neighbor At a Time)” By DAN HURLEY Published: January 6, 2004
- “Dr. Felton Earls was on the street, looking for something at ground level that would help explain his theories about the roots of crime. He found it across from a South Side housing project, in a community garden of frost-wilted kale and tomatoes.
”That couldn’t be more perfect,” said Dr. Earls, a 61-year-old professor of human behavior and development at the Harvard School of Public Health. Gazing at a homemade sign for the garden at the corner of East Brookline Street and Harrison Avenue, he pointed out four little words: ”Please respect our efforts.”
”We’ve been besieged to better explain our findings,” he said. For over 10 years, Dr. Earls has run one of the largest, longest and most expensive studies in the history of criminology. ”We always say, It’s all about taking action, making an effort.”
Dr. Earls and his colleagues argue that the most important influence on a neighborhood’s crime rate is neighbors’ willingness to act, when needed, for one another’s benefit, and particularly for the benefit of one another’s children. And they present compelling evidence to back up their argument.
Will a group of local teenagers hanging out on the corner be allowed to intimidate passers-by, or will they be dispersed and their parents called? Will a vacant lot become a breeding ground for rats and drug dealers, or will it be transformed into a community garden?
Such decisions, Dr. Earls has shown, exert a power over a neighborhood’s crime rate strong enough to overcome the far better known influences of race, income, family and individual temperament.
”It is far and away the most important research insight in the last decade,” said Jeremy Travis, director of the National Institute of Justice from 1994 to 2000. ”I think it will shape policy for the next generation.”
Francis T. Cullen, immediate past president of the American Society of Criminology, said of Dr. Earls’s research, ”It is perhaps the most important research undertaking ever embarked upon in the study of the development of criminal behavior.”
The National Institute of Justice has so far spent over $18 million on Dr. Earls’s study — more than it has ever financed for any other project. The MacArthur Foundation has spent another $23.6 million on the study, likewise the most it has spent, and money from other government agencies has brought the cost of the project to over $51 million so far.
Dr. Earls came to his current work by a circuitous route that included one great leap. Born to working-class parents in New Orleans, he graduated from Howard University’s College of Medicine and pursued a postdoctoral fellowship in neurophysiology at the University of Wisconsin.
It was there that he met Dr. Mary Carlson, a neurophysiologist. They have been married for 31 years and are now collaborating on a project in Tanzania to promote the well-being of children who have lost their parents to AIDS.
When they met, they were both aiming for a white-jacket career in the laboratory. In fact, back in April 1968, Dr. Earls spent 36 hours straight, alone for much of the time, in a soundproof room, mapping the responses of a cat’s brain to various high- or low-frequency sounds.
When he emerged from his laboratory on the evening of April 5, the Wisconsin campus was in an uproar. Only then did he learn that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed the day before. Having participated in rallies led by Dr. King, Dr. Earls says he reacted instantly.
”I realized that I couldn’t have a career in neurophysiology. I couldn’t remain in a laboratory,” he said. ”King’s death made me see that I had to work for society. My laboratory had to be the community, and I had to work with children because they represent our best hope.”
Six months later, he left Wisconsin and went to East Harlem to train as a pediatrician, then to Massachusetts General Hospital to train as a child psychiatrist, and finally to the London School of Hygiene for a degree in public health.
His research is, in essence, about the health of communities, not just about crime. ”I am concerned about crime,” he said, ”but my background is in public health. We look at kids growing up in neighborhoods across a much wider range than just crime: drug use, school performance, birth weights, asthma, sexual behavior.”
His study, based in Chicago, has challenged an immensely popular competing theory about the roots of crime. ”Broken windows,” as it is known, holds that physical and social disorder in a neighborhood lead to increased crime, that if one broken window or aggressive squeegee man is allowed to remain in a neighborhood, bigger acts of disorderly behavior will follow.
This theory has been one of the most important in criminology. It was first proposed in an article published 20 years ago in The Atlantic Monthly, written by Dr. James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The theory provided the intellectual foundation for a crackdown on ”quality of life” crimes in New York City under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Today, ”broken windows” policing is endorsed by police chiefs across the country, its proponents sought out for lectures and consulting around the world. But from the beginning, Dr. Wilson concedes, the theory lacked substantive scientific evidence that it worked.”