Following the book launch of The Gang of Four: Four Leaders, Four Communities, One Friendship in May, the International Examiner was able to chat with Uncle Bob Santos extensively about the International District, activism, and the future.
International Examiner: Can you talk a little about growing up in the International District?
Bob Santos: I grew up here, next door is the N.P. Hotel. … My mom passed away when I was just a little kid, 15 months old. My dad [who was a professional prize fighter] as a widower, he couldn’t take care of two young sons, so I was left to stay with an aunt and uncle who lived in the Central area. I was sent to parochial school during the weekday, and then I’d come down to the International District, Chinatown, Manilatown on weekends, evenings, and summertime to be with my dad.
And there were two lifestyles—you had the parochial school, growing up as a Catholic. Thinking back at the time, I’m thinking it wasn’t a very helpful, happy childhood, because everything everything you did that was fun was a sin. … But I still was an altar boy, I served mass during the weekdays and on Sundays, and I did all the stuff that Catholic boys were supposed to do.
And then I’d be down here with my dad, and we’d get these visitors on Saturday. My dad was still a very popular figure then, so the cook from Pier 91 would come and he’d bring food and then the bootlegger from the neighborhood, he’d send up a little pint of whiskey for the party, and some of my dad’s friends would show up. And we’d have a little room, but it would spill out into the hallway next door on the third floor, and then two of the women would come by—professionals in the building at that time, the call girls—they would come by and visit, before their night started with the guys in the hotel, and they could come by.
And so here I am, this little Catholic boy, this is Saturday and tomorrow, Sunday, I’d have to run back and serve mass. And here I’m with these gamblers, the bootleggers, the prostitutes, and the musicians, and that’s my dad’s buddies, that’s my dad’s friends. So I’m living two lives, and the life down here was the most fun. Cause you know, I just got a kick out of it, being with these crazy people that really are a part of history in the International District—the earthy element.
IE: What was it like living before the civil rights movement, when society was more overtly racist?
Santos: Even growing up there were instances—me and my friends, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese kids—were different from the mainstream kids. A lot of the white kids came from more of a privileged background, and the kids from our side of the neighborhood, fathers and mothers and people in the family, really struggled.
… And that was noticeable. The fathers and mothers in our community, the mothers would be seamstresses and the fathers would be in the restaurant business, either cooks or waiters, dishwashers, or they would be in the seafood industry as cannery workers, in the salmon canneries in alaska or even on the waterfront.
So those were sort of labor-type jobs. And when we were growing up as kids we’d follow our parents into that employment of restaurant workers. One of my first jobs was cleaning clam nectar pots at Ivar’s on the waterfront. … I think I had that job for about a week and a half, two weeks and then decided that there were other jobs that would be more fun to work in, and so I left there and sold vegetables at Pike Market or something.
But growing up with the ethnic community … you became part of a big family of Filipino kids, Japanese kids, Chinese kids, and some white kids.
And when the war started, internment happened and the Japanese kids, all of a sudden they disappeared, and they were sent to concentration camps along with their parents. … There were instances at school. We would go to school and some of the white kids would sort of pick on us, the Asian kids, because to these other little white kids all the Asian kids looked like the Japanese, “Jap” kids, and they would pick fights with us. So it was a time where our families had these buttons made up—I’m a Filipino and I’m a Chinese, we had to wear those buttons. Not that we were proud to be Chinese or proud to be Filipinos, we just didn’t want to be mistaken for Japanese so we’d get beat up.
IE: You’ve been involved in so much. What do you consider your greatest achievements?
Santos: I think the thing that I’m probably most proud of is the fact that the International District is still a residential neighborhood with low income elderly. We put a lot of effort in keeping them in place, low income immigrant families. It’s still a neighborhood that accepts the low-income population, whether it’s seniors or families as a residential base, and as you’re preserving this neighborhood for them, you’re also trying to balance, you’re also working with developers who want to bring in market rate housing, and maybe even higher income housing so your neighborhood isn’t just a low-income ghetto for seniors. I mean you have families, you have working people, and you have higher income people, so you have a total mixed community, and you’re not being gentrified from one class eliminating another class, but you have a neighborhood that’s inclusive of all these elements.
So that’s the thing you look at. You’re saying, “We helped preserve this neighborhood.”
IE: What are the most pressing issues facing the ID, or Seattle today?
Santos: An example is the International District itself. We’re surrounded by concrete. We have the I-5 freeway on the east side of the district, I-90 on the south side of the District, we used to have one stadium on the west side. We outlived that stadium, the Kingdome, now we have two, and then the third arena is being planned or looked at by some wealthy white guy—and on the north side of the District of course you have the expansion of the city government, the city complex.
So the International District is constantly aware of the pressures surrounding them in terms of development potential. Developers want to come into the district and build what they think would be good for the city, for the region. And of course the motivation is the bottom line—making a fortune on their development. We in the community are saying, “Well wait a minute.” For many, many, many decades our people were segregated into this International District—the Chinatown, Manilatown, Japantown, and the later on Little Saigon, but we were segregated. Our families couldn’t acquire property anywhere else, and so many years we were forced to live together. And all of a sudden our neighborhood is getting looked at as a potential market for tourism, for stadium-related businesses. …
Those of us who worked for [InterIm CDA] and the International District Preservation Development Authority decided, hey, we have to stabilize the residential base of this community. … We had to make sure that the pioneers who built this community were not forced out or displaced by all this development that was happening around us. … We’re always on alert for developers that want to come in into our area to disrupt the plans that have been carefully laid for the last several decades since the early ’70s to the present time.
IE: How do you feel about how the International District is doing now?
Santos: Well, we’re still here, it’s still a neighborhood. There are issues. You have the street crime, you have people that sort of hang out because it’s a comfortable neighborhood for everyone, including the street people. … Because we’re so laid back, a lot of the drug deals are made on the street, because we have very little security. The officers in the police department drive by in their cars and bicycles and they go through once or twice a day and then they’re gone. And street people know that. Little convicts know that, so they’re willing to do their wheeling and dealing of the drug traffic during those times when there’s no security to be seen in the district.
IE: Do you think activism has changed from your day to now?
Santos: You take a look at the book we wrote, The Gang of Four, each one of us, Bernie Whitebear with the Native American community, Roberto with the El Centro and the Latino community, Larry Gossett—his organization CAMP is based in the central area—each of us had our own ethnic communities where we served and each of us became part of the leadership of these communities through our organizations, and we were very successful in generating resources for our communities. The 1964 Civil Rights act, there were federal programs that were initiated, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Community Services Administration, model cities programs—so federal money was allocated to the cities, and the cities then allocated funds to the neighborhood organizations.
So we became experts in mobilizing our communities, and then were successful in generating those public resources for our community projects. In the International District we built housing, we built the health clinic, the child care center, and this all started with public resources, public money. And all four organizations—United Indians, El Centro and CAMP and InterIm, were successful in doing that, but in order to get those resources, we were in competition with each other for the limited amount of funds that the city was putting in the middle of the pot.
So four of us got together and we decided, hey, when we testify for our own programs, why don’t we support each other’s programs while we’re on the podium there at the hearings, and force the city to enlarge the pot, which actually happened.
So that was during the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and then young people who wanted to get involved in the activism, they wanted to march in the protests, in the demonstrations.
All of a sudden, the activism nowadays is taken over by the right wing. Where we used to have the activists that were more left or more liberal, now the activism is taken over by people like the Tea Party for example, which really pisses me off. Now, we spent a lot of our effort in the old days to get people, young people, young people of color involved in the political process. So we had people elected to the City Council, the County Council, state government, and you know, maybe we could have done better if we had more representation, but we did get people represented. … I’m very optimistic about the young people in our community, especially because I see them often, young Asians—and Latinos and blacks—we have a whole new crop of young people, young activists that want to know how to get involved. And that’s another reason why we wrote this book, is to document for history what our involvement is in the civil rights movement.
IE: So part of the reason for this book is to record part of the history of the civil rights movement?
Santos: Yeah, in the hopes that it generates interest from young people [and that they see] there is a way to voice your concerns through activism. There’s a saying by a guy named E.O. Wilson, he’s a very famous environmentalist. His quote is: “Battles are where the fun is.” And when I look back on my career, we’ve had a lot of fun. Cause every day you have to generate enthusiasm, not only for your staff, but for your community, young people, old people, in generating resources for programs to benefit the old folks, or the immigrants, or families. So that’s always been fun, but it’s been a battle.
IE: Thinking about the battles you fought, to what extent do you think they’ve been won?
Santos: You have to look at other ethnic neighborhoods around the country, on the West coast. In the early 70s a guy named Ben Woo, who at least at that time was the Chairman of the InterIm board. Him and I took a trip up and down the coast to see what other ethnic communities were being confronted with. It’s the same thing. Development was pushing or displacing people out of their communities.
[From what I saw in San Francisco], the largest displacement for me was the displacement of Manilatown. …When they built the financial district they completely wiped out Manilatown. Ten blocks of Manilatown was wiped out. The last building in Manilatown, there was a big struggle to save that last building called the International Hotel. That was a big issue then. …Well actually after a 10 year battle, they lost, and it became a hole in the ground for three decades. And Ben and I were thinking, why did the activists wait for the last building to confront the developers? I mean maybe that’s their style in San Francisco, but here we were able to stop the first displacement effort. …The idea of maintaining the International District as an ethnic neighborhood was always prominent in our minds, in the midst of the activists, in the midst of InterIm, and that’s why we were able to build what we were able to do. And actually we’re one of the very few ethnic communities in the Northwest that were able to preserve this lifestyle.
So that’s very important and it’s still going on, they’re still protecting the lifestyle of this community. Now the old businesses, they knew what was coming, what was happening, and we had their support. But so many of the businesses have changed hands, so a lot of the new owners of the old businesses now have to be educated themselves about the efforts to preserve this district. Many of the the new owners of the new establishments in the community don’t know the history. So that’s what books like this are about.
IE: Did you have a sense, doing your activism work with the Gang of Four, that you were making history, changing history?
Santos: Well you don’t really have that in the back of your mind, it’s just the the effort that you put out trying to, say, preserve a neighborhood for some of the old folks. That this was the only home they’ve ever had in this new country, and all of a sudden they look around and they see all these cranes going up and all this concrete coming in, and they’re scared to death about losing their homes that they’ve lived in all these decades, and so that was on our minds. We have to protect these folks, we have to protect this neighborhood, not knowing what’s going to go down in history as small victories. We never thought of that.
IE: Without the close collaboration with the other members of the Gang of Four, how would your work and activism have been different?
Santos: Well that’s hard to say, because it did happen. When we were working here in the International District we’d have our demonstrations and our protests. The activism from the Asian community wouldn’t actually draw that much media attention because the activists, there were only a handful of us, maybe 20 at the most, and so if there was a little demonstration up the street, the media wouldn’t cover it. So we really had to have the support of Roberto at El Centro, Larry at CAMP, and Bernie at the United Indians because when we had a demonstration here, they would bring their troops down in support of us. So instead of having 20 people out there, we would have a couple of hundred. So the media really paid a lot of attention to what was going on in our community. …
All these activist elements were in support of each other. And it was really a valuable time, where networking was so important that you just didn’t work in your own neighborhood and not be aware of what was happening next door or outside your community. We always knew what was happening in the greater Seattle area, and we were there when we were needed.
I may have to write another book.
IE: Are there any lessons from your activism work that you would want to impart to activists today?
Santos: When you look back to try to figure out what made everything click for me personally, [it] is an element of networking. In the early days, we were trying to get attention from influential people. … If we needed support from City Council members or from the business community, we had to go to them and educate them about the history of the International District, what we were trying to do to preserve it. And so as you meet people—the business community, the bankers, the mayor, the City Council members—you’re actually networking. And I found out that the best people to network with, in terms of elected officers, are the legislative aides, the secretaries. Because the legislative aides are the people that advise their bosses, the City Council members. So I would spend a lot of time taking them to lunch. The legislative aides, they sit down, when you’re talking to them, they would take the notes. If you sat with a City Council member, they would never take notes—you’re at lunch with them and they’re always looking around to see who they can say, hi, to.
So you have to network with the right kind of people. And then as you expand your network. … Networking is the most important element of me as an activist; gaining support from this ever-growing network. And it just doesn’t happen in your neighborhood or in the city of Seattle or in the state of Washington. Your network expands nationally. Young people that would work for you at InterIm or volunteer at the garden, they’d go and become legislators in Washington D.C. for other senators and congressmen. We have a young person now in the White House that was a young person working in our community and she’s in the White House right now. We have another person in New York that works for public TV. And so when I send them this book, they want to do a story on the Gang of Four. So that’s that ever-growing network. …
And it sort of pisses me off when I see clusters of people. You go to an event and there’s a cluster of people, the same people at the same table at the dinner. The same people that were at the dinner last week at another organization and they’re still together there. and I’m thinking, “God that’s not a way to network.” You have to branch out, you have to talk to people in the tables around you. You have to walk around during the reception and meet people—force yourself on them if you have to.
IE: What have you been doing these days?
Santos: We’ve been working on this book for 20 years now. Even when I was working at InterIm off and on, I’d get together with Gary Iwamoto my co-author, Elaine Ko—and this was still during the time when Bernie [Whitebear] had just passed away, and Larry [Gossett] and Roberto [Maestas] got together and we said, “Well we should document our experience in some form.” … We decided that maybe book [form] would probably be okay. …
A book like this was pretty difficult because you had four individuals—all four were leaders in their ethnic communities, they were executive directors of those agencies, and really developed their own history, their own stories. And as we were writing this book we decided, instead of writing a big long encyclopedia-type book, we decided that we’d write about bits and pieces of our lives growing up, and then we’d write the more interesting and memorable experiences as a group. So Gary wrote the first part, the individual stories, and then I wrote the second part, which was the four of us working together as a coalition.
I’m not a writer. I’m a storyteller. I document my stories on paper and Gary Iwamoto … would do the research and the dates. He’d research the accuracy and all that kind of stuff. It’s really simple writing the book from my perspective because I have someone like Gary that does the grunt work.
IE: What’s it been like going to the book signings and events for the Gang of Four book and hearing people’s reactions?
Santos: It’s the reaction you really want to hear. We had three book readings last week, and so you’re not only selling your book but more people are learning the history of the Black community, Asian, Indian, Latino communities, to the whole civil rights movement. And that’s part of history that your history books don’t document. They just don’t. I mean U.S. history, they’re still talking about Christopher columbus for heaven’s sake. History is local, and the young people who are growing up today, they have pride of a local movement, cause they know their parents were involved, or their aunts or their uncles or other relatives were involved in it, so that’s key.