All Politics is Local

Annise Parker's Free Range Youth Instilled a Passion for Nature

The former city mayor’s love of Houston greenspace is rooted in Spring Branch.

By Emma Schkloven Published in the Fall issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Thomas Shea

Before Spring Branch became an industrialized center of light manufacturing and a hub of Korean and Hispanic culture, former Houston mayor Annise Parker spent her childhood wandering the woods and pastures of the semirural Houston suburb. This free-range childhood, around both her parents’ home on Laverne Street and her grandparents’ 20-acre farm just west of Beltway 8 and north of I-10 along Brittmoore Road, planted the seeds of the sensible compassion that carried into her career in city politics.

Even after becoming the city’s first openly gay mayor in 2010, Parker remained rooted in the lessons of Spring Branch, seeking to balance the pragmatic needs of the city (she worked in the oil industry before getting into professional politics, after all) while moving Houston toward being more environmentally conscious and pushing for a more accepting culture in city government. 

How did growing up in Spring Branch shape you as a politician?

I had a small-town childhood right next to the big city. I had some of the best of a small-town childhood—the lessons of freedom, and safety, and being able to explore. I was pretty much a shy, quiet kid anyway, so spending so much of my time by myself, I think it did give me a deep appreciation for nature and the environment.

Parker (right) with her parents and sister.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your childhood neighborhood since you were a kid?

Just the sheer growth: there are people in houses everywhere. Even the older neighborhoods in Spring Branch were barely there when I was growing up. You could stand in the pasture on my grandparents’ farm, and you could see downtown. You can’t do that now. The city just keeps going. It felt like you were on the edge of the world out there back then. It was all the Katy Prairie.

What is an issue that you are still passionate about that you learned about based on where you grew up?

I’m passionate about parks and greenspace. One of the things I’m proudest of in my time as mayor is the Bayou Greenways initiative, the hike and bike trail expansion. We worked really hard on parks and greenspace in general, but also on destination parks, like the skateboard and BMX park in North Houston—things that would allow kids to be able to get outdoors and do things.

Who was a Houston leader who inspired you?

I didn’t have a political mentor, but the public official who inspired me the most was Eleanor Tinsley [a key board member of the Houston Independent School District who helped HISD integrate after being elected in 1969 and who went on to become one of the first female members of the Houston City Council a decade later]. She was the first politician I ever volunteered for; I was a college student during her council campaign. It was her willingness to take on big things, that quiet, calm persistence, and that she always did her homework. She was always over-prepared.

When she died, at her service, I think every female council member who’d been elected since was there to honor her. We’ve all been shaped in some way by the issues she worked on, and how she approached her job and set a standard.

What was it about where you grew up that inspired you to get into politics?

It wasn’t where I grew up, but what I learned from growing up: this sense of community and that you have to be involved in your community.

So I was a candy striper. I was, among other things, a rescue dummy for EMTs. I shelved books in Ring Neighborhood Library on Long Point Road. We would do neighborhood cleanups. That definitely is part of what finally got me to run for office. I was very active in a number of community organizations, and I just saw it as an extension of community engagement—the responsibility we all have to be part of the community and give back.

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