As darkness settled and streetlights started clicking on, Brianna and Darryl Drisdale wound their red SUV through the streets of Houston’s Third Ward, the sound of jazz softly emanating from the radio.
The father-daughter duo craned their necks to peer out the window, passing kids playing in yards, residents socializing on lawn chairs, night herons blocking the road — and streetlight after streetlight with a burned-out bulb.
“Anything could be down there!” Brianna, 31, exclaimed as she glanced down one offshoot of McGowen Street, dim lights dotting the dark tree-filled road.
“Boom!” shouted Darryl, 59, as the duo noted yet another darkened light just minutes later, nearly passing it by. “If it was a snake, it would’ve bit ya,” retorted Brianna, jumping out to take down the pole number affixed to the tall wooden beam.
For the past several months, the Drisdales have embarked on a family effort to illuminate streets across Third Ward, the historic Houston neighborhood that raised them both but struggles today with high crime rates. By doing so, they hope to bring attention to areas still yearning for what other parts of the city take for granted: the safe harbor of light.
Deputized by their local neighborhood council, the pair has spent hours canvassing for dark streets and cataloging dozens of burned-out, malfunctioning or obstructed lights. From there, Brianna reports their findings to city officials and utility companies, who are ultimately responsible for any maintenance.
As of August, the Drisdales have identified 72 spots in the nearly 3-square-mile area that need more illumination. CenterPoint Energy officials, who run the city’s light posts, have told the Drisdales that 23 lights have been fixed in response to their reporting.
“It’s a basic thing, but it makes such a big difference,” Darryl said.
For residents of Third Ward, few issues speak to perceptions of safety more than light.
A 2017 report produced as part of Complete Communities, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s effort to bring equity and opportunity to 10 “historically under-resourced communities,” found that lit streets ranked as the top public safety priority for the roughly 700 people surveyed in the neighborhood.
The report’s authors noted that “adequate street lighting creates a sense of security, particularly in the evening.” Academic research on the potential link between better street lighting and lower crime has been mixed.
While the city is responsible for approving streetlights and CenterPoint installs and maintains them, little gets done without citizen initiative. Residents must contact the city or utility to get new streetlights or request fixes to existing ones.
That’s where the Drisdales come in.
A tenacious tandem
Although Brianna, a property manager, has moved from her childhood home to south Houston, she fell in love with giving back as a census worker in Third Ward in 2020. Earlier this year, she volunteered to chair the Greater Third Ward Super Neighborhood 67 public safety working group — and decided to tackle the community’s top priority.
Naturally, she enlisted the help of her father, a retired government contractor and proud Third Ward native. As a Yates High School student, Darryl swelled with pride over the many professional athletes who came out of his hometown. Later, when working in Afghanistan for Halliburton, co-workers from across the country recognized Third Ward for its influence on the rap scene.
“He’s passionate about the community and Third Ward, just like I am,” Brianna said. “He literally waits around for me to need something. He’s like, ‘Yeah, sure. Let’s do it. Whatever you need.’ And he’s a dad’s dad, so he’s not gonna let me go anywhere alone at night or anything like that.”
The Drisdales begin their surveys, which take about two hours, with the setting of the sun.
As Darryl drives and navigates, criss-crossing the neighborhood, his daughter keeps a watchful eye for the absence of light. When Brianna spots a problem area, she notes the intersection and any light post numbers on the back of a piece of printer paper.
When Brianna arrives home, she separates the concerns into three categories on a spreadsheet: light outages, trees blocking lights and blocks with “inadequate light.”
Brianna then reports streetlight outages to CenterPoint Energy, with the rest reported to the city through its 311 service request line or the Planning and Development Department, which is aiding her in the endeavor. In all, Brianna estimates she’s spent about 20 hours on the project.
A labor of light
It’s a work in progress. While CenterPoint has fixed nearly two dozen reported outages, several problem lights documented by the Drisdales remain out of commission. The duo hasn’t had luck yet, either, with getting new light poles erected in dark areas.
Still, the Drisdales’ diligence has impressed neighborhood leaders. One evening in late May, participants on a super neighborhood Zoom call erupted in applause when Brianna announced that at least seven streetlights had recently been relit.
“I thought it was Don Quixote fighting windmills,” said Ken Rodgers, the super neighborhood’s president.
Rodgers said he hopes to enlist more residents in advocating for better lighting. He tries to educate his neighbors about calling 311, following up with city staffers and connecting with elected officials. If more people care about an issue, Rodgers said, the city will act faster.
“It’s been my experience, if you want something done, you have to get out there and start doing it at least,” Rodgers said. “Then, normally, some form of government will jump in and then they’ll start assisting you. It’s not something you can do that you ever finish, it’s just something that you keep after.”
Brianna said she has all but finished canvassing the community. Certain moments of success, like a fixed streetlight, have been encouraging, though she continues to battle for new installations and more cutting back of trees from existing lights.
The process has been confusing and exhausting at times, she said, but she encourages those in a similar quandary to persevere.
For his part, Darryl looks forward to seeing their hard work pay off in future drives around his old neighborhood.
“It’s the dirty work,” Darryl said. “And then finally, something gets done. So maybe in a couple of years, I can ride through and go, ‘Hmm, I was kind of in on that,’ on the ground.”