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Annise Parker - Mayor of Houston

Annise Parker

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Forbes Magazine has attempted to quantify ‘coolness’ and Houston tops the list as America’s Coolest City. (We weren’t surprised, but probably the non-Houstonians were.) Mayor Annise Parker credits our tolerance, our hospitality, our food, our Texan—that’s entrepreneurial--spirit and so many other reasons. Houston is the MOST diverse city in the U.S.; did you know we print voting ballots in FOUR languages? Did you know Houston’s number of theatre seats ranks second only to New York? Laura Max Nelson interviews the Bayou City’s cool mayor.

Video and Full Interview Text

Laura: Hi everyone and welcome this is Hot on Houston. I'm Laura Nelson, I'm your host and I'm here with Houston's Mayor Annise Parker who I'll be speaking to today about why Houston is the coolest city to live in; hi Mayor Parker, how are you?

Annise: I'm great

Laura: I'm so glad you're here today and we're gonna get started right away, as you know in July Forbes ranked Houston the coolest city to live in of all the cities in the U.S. and obviously you are mayor of this great city, why do you think that's true? What makes - what makes Houston the coolest city?

Annise: Well, Houston has this really wonderful mayor that's very cool.

Laura: Obviously.

Annise: No, Houston has a unique combination of livability and, uh economic dynamism we have all the things that you want in a big urban area but we're just a very livable city and I think it's that combination. And the fact that people have a stereotype about Houston that, uh, once they get here gets dispelled.

Laura: I hear that a lot, I'm one of those people who had that stereotype and I come here and I hear so many people, they say Houston is such an easy city to live in and you've just referenced that. What is it that this city is so easy to live in?

Annise: The best thing about Houston is the people who are in Houston; you have the hospitality of the South, you have the tolerance and independence of the West we're a really international city - 20% of Houstonians are foreign born. We have a business community that is composed of people from all over the world, every language of business that's spoken on the world is spoken in Houston and you have that constant, uh, influx of, you know, the international community and it makes for a really good welcoming combination. And then we are a low tax, low regulation state and the city prides itself on being business friendly; so if you want to launch a new business, while it's not perfect our permitting system is faster, easier, smoother than most places. We have a fairly good tax structure here and a good quality of city services.

Laura: So one of the things that you mentioned which is my next question was tolerance and coming from having lived in Boston for that last five years, a stereotype that I regularly heard about southern states - states, which includes Texas and therefore Houston, is that there's a less tolerant nature and that people are not only less tolerant but less intelligent; that's not been my experience here so far and I'm trying to communicate that.

Annise: Less in-less intelligent! Whoa my gosh.

Laura: I mean here you are, so obviously.

Annise: Now, I'm not unaware that my election as mayor helped prompt some people to say Houston, really? They elected a gay mayor? I want to whatever works to get people to think twice about - about Houston and I've worked that as much as I can. Now I'm the Mayor of Houston, I'm not the gay Mayor of Houston, but anything that causes folks to say well maybe Houston isn't you know, a redneck wasteland as I thought it was, uh, give it the chance and I think most people who come here really enjoy it.

Laura: Do you think that, you know, that has had a really big effect on the way people view the city from the outside. That, you know, you're not the gay Mayor of Houston, you're the Mayor of Houston but that people see like, hey, this is a much more, you know, tolerant, open community than I probably imagined it was.

Annise: You know, of Texas - or actually of U.S. cities over a million in population, there've only been 10 women who have been Mayors of those major U.S. cities, two in Houston. This is not a new phenomenon for Houston and it goes to that idea of we want to know what you can do, not who you are, not - not your gender, not any other thing about you. I hope that my election has had some impact on how Houston views - how Houston is viewed around the world, but all I do is maybe open a door.

What happens is that Houston sells itself and the people of Houston and the opportunities here in Houston are what really gets people's imaginations and gets them hooked.

Annise: We have more engineers per capita than I believe any city in America, including Boston and we have the world's largest medical complex so we have doctors and scientists here that rival anything in the world and of course we also are the home of, uh, human space flight at NASA which contributes to the high portion of engineers that we have. But Texas is I tried to reference this earlier - Texas is not really the South and it's not really the West, it is Texas. Some parts of Texas have a harsh climate and is difficult to difficult to make a living, you know, scratching out a living in the early days of the state but Texas and Houston in spades have always it's always been a place where it was more about what you could do than who you were. Didn't matter who your parents were or where you started out in life, if you came to Texas or if you came to Houston and you could launch yourself and be or succeed at anything that you are capable of doing. Texans respect hard work, they respect independence, they have some tolerance for eccentricity but you do still have to produce. This is a state that's very friendly and Houston really is a warm welcoming place but you're gonna have to work when you get here.

Laura: I've also noticed there's a lot of ethnic diversity in Houston and from having come from Boston I know that that's definitely not the stereotype of the city. Can you talk a little bit about that and why that is and what that's like in Houston, what that does for the city?

Annise: Well I've referenced that we have people from all over the world coming to Houston but just a few decades ago the stereotype of Houston as a typical biracial Southern city might have been accurate, but after the last census, we are officially the most diverse city in the United States. There is no one ethnic or racial croup that is in the majority in Houston, in fact, the largest segment of Houston is Hispanic. We have the largest Vietnamese population outside of California, you could spend all day in Houston and speak nothing but Korean, Chinese, or Vietnamese you'd be fine. I have to print ballots in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Mandarin because we have such large foreign born populations here.

We also have very significant Indian and Pakistani, you know, South Asian communities. In fact some of the bedroom communities Sugar Land for example, the majority of the elected leadership in their city council is South Asian and that's a relatively recent phenomenon and thethe diversity gets, uh, more varied and not less and it all seems to work. In fact my life partner Cathy Hubbard, who is acting, you know, who is the First Lady of Houston and her major event that she has championed is citizenship week, which we do in November and it started with a couple of events highlighting the amazing international diversity of Houston. This year there's gonna be more than 300 events during citizenship week with the various international communities of - of Houston highlighting their cultures, their communities, talking about the importance of participating in U.S. Democracy and citizenship.

Laura: There's a lot of celebration of diversity.

Annise: A lot of celebration of diversity, it's amazing.

Laura: So speaking of having a thriving community as long as you are really able to…

Annise: We have a very thriving arts community in Houston and that's one of the things.

Laura: That was where yeah, that was the next question was usually when people have dreams in the arts they grow up thinking about being in New York or L.A. I certainly tried New York City for three weeks and came here afterwards what does Houston have that New York and L.A., you know, don't have, especially for someone who is looking to thrive in the arts; our arts community here is fantastic.

Annise: Well L.A., if you want to be in T.V., you want to be on - in the movies L.A. is probably where you want to be. And if you want to be on Broadway you probably ought to be in New York but the city of Houston has more theatre seats than any other city outside of New York, we have a very vibrant arts community and , in terms of the visual arts, we are a premier destination and growing. And because I don't know, maybe there's not quite as much noise in Houston around that. Now we're also we're a foodie town.

Laura: A delicious - the best meals of my life have been in Houston.

Annise: Yes. And beginning finally to get the recognition we deserve on that. So when you consider, you know, if you're an up and coming chef, do you want to launch your career in New York or Chicago or do you want to launch your career in Houston where it's cheaper and easier to launch your restaurant and you have a very appreciative and very knowledgeable, uh, potential audience for your food?

Laura: Speaking of food, I walked into restaurants here and they're just - there's a new restaurant on every block it seems and not only that but they're all the size of Texas - they're huge which sort of brings me

Annise: We have the small ones too and a lot of them start small but - see that's the nice thing, they grow. Houston is a food appreciative town, a foodie town.

Laura: We love a good meal around here.

Annise: You like it? We love a good meal.

Laura: I hope I'm convincing some of you Bostonians to consider moving here with the food.

Annise: We have a climate that is year round. You can we have two weeks of winter spread out one day at a time. We have - we have two months of steam bath but you can adapt to that. We have - Houstonians are outdoor people. If you are into biking, walking outdoor sports, you play golf - you can literally play golf anytime in Houston and we attract a lot of people who have an outdoor lifestyle but also want the ability to support themselves in a high tech industry. We are the headquarters of oil and gas - world oil and gas - but we are becoming the headquarters for the new energy economy also.

Then we have the Texas Medical Center as I already mentioned. We are America's largest foreign tonnage port so there's a lot of business which is why we have such a large international community here and then with - with NASA we have a, you know, high tech scientific community. The fourth area that we're rapidly expanding is manufacturing and that goes to the - that we have a lot of available space, we have affordable rent and we are uniquely positioned. If everyone would sort of imagine where Houston is on a map on the United States and you see New York and - and L.A. and Chicago up there, and then there this whole Gulf Coast region with Houston right in the center of it and a very extensive rail and flight network to the heartland of the United States. So and you can get from Houston quickly anyplace in America and very quickly and to

Laura: Great airports and air travel out of Houston

Annise: South and Central America - yes.

Laura: for travelers. So we've talked a lot about all the things that you can do here and all the opportunity that exists, so my last question is just getting to know you a little better. If you got the day off tomorrow, which I know probably isn't in the cards but let's just say, how would you spend it in the city - other than maybe taking a very long nap?

Annise: Well I'm not a napper but, uh, I would probably spend it at home. I spend literally six days a week - and often seven days a week on the job out in community so when I have a day off I retreat into my into my home space but I'm a huge fan of the Houston Zoo. I'm a museum person, particularly like the Museum of Natural Science. I have my own backyard garden retreat so I love the Japanese Garden in Hermann Park. I love kayaking on, uh, Buffalo Bayou and actually I my favorite place outside my own backyard in Houston is, uh, Buffalo Bayou and if you have been a long the section of Buffalo Bayou between Shepherd and Downtown recently, you can see the beginnings of what is ultimately probably a 70 million dollar transformation

Laura: Wow, I haven't yet but I'll be sure to check it out.

Annise: Of that hike and bike trails and our bat bridge and you can get - you can get down on the water - we're building some canoe launches and so forth, but if you get down on the water you don't know that you're in the middle of a city until you actually get into Downtown. And Houston is still a place where it's a very dense urban area, fourth largest city in the United States, but you can get away from it all and feel that you're out in the country somewhere.

Laura: It has a little bit of everything to offer.

Annise: Has a little bit of everything and it has an entrepreneurial spirit that I think I was born in Houston as were my parents and maybe it's in out DNA but what's happened is that over time the city - we self select to come to Houston so many of us and so people come here with already that attitude of I have an idea, I can make it here, I can create it - there's opportunity

Laura: You have an idea here, there's somebody that wants to support you. That's what I love about Houston.

Annise: And we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the United States right now which is great.

Laura: You can feel it here too.

Annise: You can feel - even in the depths of the recession, there's an underlying optimism that Houstonians have.

Laura: Great. Well thank you so much, it was such an honor meeting you and speaking with you today and thank you all for tuning in. This is Hot on Houston; we air every week on or, you can follow us. Again I'm Laura Nelson, I'm your host and we'll see you next week, thanks everyone.

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