While Bob Santos is a dear friend to many, lovingly referred to as “Uncle Bob,” there is a new generation that is growing up in the wake of his legacy and might not even recognize it.
Uncle Bob’s Place, which sits on the corner of 8th Avenue and King Street, stands tall as a continuation of his activism for the neighborhood and his advocacy for housing stability and community. With six occupied levels of low-income housing, Uncle Bob’s Place is standing up for what he believed in and fought for.
Growing up, Uncle Bob was no stranger to unjust displacement. His father would take him around the Chinatown International District (CID) to his old stomping grounds like the barber shop, gambling hall, and restaurants.
“This community really shaped Bob’s sense of what it means to belong to a community even within our diversity and then recognizing that the elder manongs [first-born males in the family] and many Chinese men were forbidden from owning land and marrying white women and had no families to take care of them as they aged,” said Sharon Tomiko Santos, who was married to the late Bob Santos.
“Creating housing security was first important, but then when you look around at other aspects of his life as well, understanding that access to the social services — access to grow your own veggies which provides exercise and socialization, and meal programs so the elders didn’t go hungry,” she continued.
Uncle Bob’s Place, while providing a home for many families in the neighborhood, also directly addresses the need for amenities and a community space with the Bob Santos Community Room and the return of Bush Garden.
“Bringing back Bush Garden, a beloved legacy business and cultural anchor for the neighborhood that was displaced, was Uncle Bob’s favorite karaoke hangout,” said Leslie Morishita, InterIm CDA’s Real Estate Development Director.
“Retaining a stake in the neighborhood for the Chans, a longtime Chinese American family, all in the historic heart of the neighborhood furthers and embodies Uncle Bob’s vision for the future of the neighborhood,” said Morishita.
Alongside Bush Garden inside the building, many artists have come together to build a community space of creativity and activism.
“The Art Advisory Committee, including me, sought to include ideas and themes that guided Uncle Bob including both his activism and his personal life,” said Norie Sato, an Art Advisory Committee member for Uncle Bob’s Place as well as an artist herself.
“For the balconies, we asked artists to address specific themes… such as intercultural relationships, preservation of the CID, his karaoke singing at the Bush Garden, his care for intergenerational relationships and family as well,” said Sato.
The highly anticipated art that will cover the walls and floors of Uncle Bob’s Place are also representative of the way Bob engaged with art. The Santos house is filled with artwork. He recognized the universal need for community, which was expressed through the artwork he engaged with.
“I think it’s interesting that much of the art that he gravitated towards represented homes. They’re really about our more mundane experiences of daily living; we need to have that stability, abode, home, or community,” said Tomiko Santos.
The incoming terrazzo floor will also allow for folks to engage with the question of how to continue what Uncle Bob started, realizing that everyone and anyone standing on the floor is interconnected.
“I think the terrazzo will invite people to think more deeply. How did we get where we are as a community? How are we going to ensure the sustainability and what it has meant and what it has cost for us to be able to have something that no other community in the U.S. has?”
Without Uncle Bob, these questions couldn’t have been raised in the first place; he fought for the community’s existence and is thereby the reason for its survival today. The relationships he built and the love that he had for the neighborhood is what made him the unofficial Mayor of the CID.
“The fact that Bob’s son designed the logo, and you have that huge visage of Bob literally keeping an eye on the CID is so perfect both metaphorically but also personally. He would be very, very proud,” said Tomiko Santos.
John Santos, one of Uncle Bob’s sons, along with Alvin Madden, created the mural of Uncle Bob on the west side of the building, overlooking the rest of the CID.
“We just wanted something bright, bold, and timeless. I know I wanted his iconic hat and his expressive hands in the image to go along with a positive smirk,” said the younger Santos. “He was a fixture then, and still is today. It’s nice to see Uncle Bob’s Place become a home to many. It would be amazing if the younger generation learned about his legacy, as well as others who helped shape the CID.”
The full circle of Uncle Bob’s Place, from the history of the land that it sits on to the families and friends that occupy it, will continue providing a home and community for future generations. This continuation of Uncle Bob’s legacy is only made possible by grants and donations.
There will be upcoming fundraisers in the neighborhood to raise the money for the final steps before opening fully to the public.