Annise Parker has spent years being a quiet, middle-of-the-road Democrat in the putatively nonpartisan world of City Hall politics. This year, though, she became a worldwide celebrity. Why? Because she loves the ladies, of course. (One lady in particular for the past 20 years). This hasn't caused much stir in Houston in recent years, and was barely brought up in the mayoral race or runoff. But once she won, it was all anyone could talk about. Reporters from all over the world wanted interviews. Oh, and she's also governed well in her first year, especially with regards to Metro.


It might be a stretch to call Bill Ratliff a Houstonian, but his district includes some of our northern exurbs, and you can't argue that the dude deserves a pat on the back. He's a solid Texas Republican through and through, but he — like so many other Republicans — was utterly embarrassed by the rightwing-nut zoo that the State Board of Education had become (our words, not his). He took on Don McElroy, one of the key ringleaders in that zoo, ran against him on his politicization of the SBOE and squeaked out a victory in the GOP primary.


If you start out onto Highway 288 from Lake Jackson, you have one of the best vantage points for watching our Houston skyline come into view. From the wide-open spaces starting around the Stephen F. Austin statue, you can watch the skyscrapers steadily become more focused as you traverse expanses of trees and pasture. In the early mornings, you end up traveling with long-distance commuters, and on weekends you share the road with short-term vacationers and the random fleet of pleasure boats and weekend-warrior bikers. After you pass the Pearland exit, things get a tad grimmer as the city's grid of freeways and advertising closes in on you. But for a good 20miles, you can discover all over again what brings people into town in the first place. Naturally, that same skyline is just as sweet as seen in your rearview mirror.

Tired of wandering aimlessly around the zoo and staring at a bunch of animals that you don't know much about? Say hello to the free Houston Zoo iPhone App. The App opens up onto a live Twitter stream where fellow zoo-goers post helpful tips, such as which exhibits are air-conditioned, and then leads right into a list of all the day's special activities that'll make sure you don't miss the elephant baths, feedings or must-see keeper talks. You can make a personalized schedule of everything you want to do. There are photos and info about most of the animals and maps that show you exactly where that giraffe is located. The App employs a GPS, showing where you are at all times, and even allows you to sync up with other App-enabled zoo-goers, so if your group wants to split up for a while, you can find each other again. Direct links to Facebook and Twitter enable users to share their day with their social network.

The life of a school-district flack can be frustrating: The media ignores all the "good" news you point them to, while constantly hounding you for more info on all the "bad" news they prefer to go with. Norm Uhl does a great job of being patient, returning phone calls and e-mails promptly, and getting answers almost as quickly as reporters would like. But here's the incredible thing: He's doing it at HISD. The same school district that flaunted its Stalinist attitude towards any media seeking to expose anything that wasn't the party line. Uhl, a former TV reporter for KHOU, is a refreshing change of pace.

No property owner likes appraisal districts. After all, organizations like the Harris County Appraisal District play a key role in determining how much property tax a homeowner pays, and that's never a good thing. And HCAD deals with so many properties that horror stories do crop up from time to time. But Jim Robinson, HCAD's chief appraiser, does a remarkable job making the agency as transparent and user-friendly as can be. Videos and online tutorials help teach homeowners how to appeal their assessment; records are easily searchable. And Robinson always makes himself available to the media to explain what's happened when something goes wrong, and to look into it further if need be. No one loves an appraisal agency, but believe us, HCAD could be much, much worse.

For a city of our size, Houston's not a great people-watching city. It's so spread out and so segregated, by class if no longer by race. Take downtown, for example. For the most part, the middle-class office drones stay below decks in the tunnels while the poor people sizzle in the heat topside, and (relatively) seldom do the twain interact. But the Texas Medical Center is one of Houston's few equalizers. Virtually all of us will spend some time there at some point in our lives. The occasion could be a joyful birth, or it could plumb the depths of misery — you see the full range of human emotions there. And since the Med Center is world-famous, people come from all over the world. What's more, and we know this is a little sick, but it's a glamour spot. Few celebrities visit Houston when not paid to do so, but most of those who do are coming for treatment at MD Anderson or another Med Center hospital, so there's the chance you might even spot someone famous.

Somehow, T.H. Rogers keeps coming up with great principals who embody the school's unique mission. That mission involves melding two distinct populations: Vanguard students who attend the gifted-and-talented magnet program from kindergarten through eighth grade, and deaf and multiply impaired students of all ages. Managing things can be a tricky adventure requiring lots of patience, but principal David Muzyka manages it, most of the time with a smile. The school continues to turn out terrific kids who go on to do great things, and who have benefited greatly from their Rogers experience.

KTRK is home to one of Houston's most enthusiastic practitioners of "Hype the Tropics," Tim "Hurricane" Heller. Luckily, the station also has a more realistic meteorologist, Casey Curry, who doesn't portentously announce the need "to keep an eye on" every thunderstorm that might form in the Caribbean. Curry ably describes conditions and possible scenarios without trying to make everything seem like Armageddon. When she tells us it's time to run for the hills, we'll start running.

READERS' CHOICE: Frank Billingsley, KPRC

Nothing about the decrepit, avocado-colored three-story building on the banks of Buffalo Bayou just west of the Main Street bridge advertises the fact that it used to be the focal point of Texas's fertile psych-rock scene, which was both bluesier and more adventurous (musically and pharmaceutically) than its better-known San Francisco Bay Area counterpart. But the top floor of the building, built as the headquarters of the International Coffee Company in the 1930s, was a hippie-friendly haven that nurtured bands like the 13th Floor Elevators, Bubble Puppy, The Red Krayola and ZZTop (who played their first show there) and gave their fans a place to congregate and enjoy the swirling light shows with minimal hassle from The Man. How much longer the remains of Love Street will be there is anyone's guess, as the building is supposedly marked for renovation as part of the Buffalo Bayou beautification project, but the reverberations that originated there continue to resonate in the music of latter-day psych bands both in Texas and around the world.

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