The following is a profile of “Uncle” Bob Santos written by Gary Iwamoto for Uncle Bob’s 75th birthday in February 2009. Gary Iwamoto collaborated with Santos on his autobiography, “Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs,” in 2002 and again in 2015 on the book, “Gang of Four.”
Uncle Bob Turns 75
By Gary Iwamoto
Bob Santos is one of our community’s legends. He has earned this reputation by having a long history, of community activism, playing a substantial role in the revitalization of Seattle’s International District. He has been a tireless advocate for the preservation of the International District as a viable place to live and work, speaking out to protect the International District against the negative impacts from the sports stadiums, downtown development, and traffic congestion. On February 21, 2009, “Uncle Bob” will be celebrating his 75th birthday at the Avalon Ballroom.
As a child growing up in the 1930’s in what is now called the International District among the prostitutes, manongs (older Filipinos), and transients, who like the buildings, were often neglected and abandoned, Bob developed a love and appreciation for this neighborhood.
When Bob became the director of the International District Improvement Association in 1972, the District had been in a steep decline. There were more abandoned buildings than occupied buildings. Residential housing which did exist violated fire and housing codes. Operating out of a small storefront on the corner of Maynard and Jackson in the old Bush Hotel, Inter*Im, under Bob’s leadership, became a magnet for young Asian activists, many of whom were recent college graduates or emerging professionals with fresh and innovative ideas toward serving the community. Plans were developed and proposals were written to fund demonstration projects which would later become the
International Community Health Services, the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, the Denise Louie Education Center, and the International District Housing Alliance. Under Bob, Inter*Im sponsored a meal voucher program, a legal referral service/clinic, and a nutrition program.
One of Bob’s proudest accomplishments as the Director of Inter*Im was the development of the Danny Woo International District Community Garden. The hillside between Washington and Main Street was overgrown with weeds and sticker bushes. Bob rallied a massive community effort to make the garden a reality. He negotiated lease agreements with the City of Seattle and the Woo Family. He coaxed and cajoled the use of bulldozer and heavy machinery to remove the underbrush, persuaded the local horse race track to dump tons of horse manure to fertilize the land, and organized community work parties, bringing in not only the young Asian activists but work crews from El Centro de la Raza and the United Indians for All Tribes. Bob instituted the annual community pig roast in the garden which continues today.
As Director of Inter*Im, Bob was instrumental in the formation of the public corporation, today known as the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority in which he also served first as a board member and executive director. Federal housing grants, low interest loans, and partnership development agreements supported the rehabilitation of older apartments and hotels such as the Bush Hotel, the New Central Apartments, and the Jackson Apartments. Bob also laid the groundwork for the International District Village Square by having the foresight more than twenty years ago to acquire the site, an abandoned bus maintenance and storage facility from Metro.
In 1982— along with other “Gang of Four” friends Bernie Whitebear, Larry Gossett, and Roberto Maestas— Uncle Bob co-founded the Minority Executive Director’s Coalition. The “Gang of Four” brought their communities together and developed a united stand on such diverse issues as fishing rights, immigrants’ rights, welfare reform, and funding for social services.
In 2002, Santos published an autobiography—Humbows, not Hotdogs!: Memoirs of a savvy Asian American Activist—which is also an important source of information about the multiracial coalitions that comprised Seattle’s civil rights movements in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Bob retired from Inter*Im in 2005 but continued to be active as a mentor, confidante, and advisor. Bob continues to work tirelessly taking evenings and weekends to do tours of the ID, serves as a popular speaker to students from elementary to graduate-level classrooms, and is the one of the most sought-after emcees for community banquets and events in the Asian Pacific community.
Uncle Bob’s most endearing trait is that he makes community service fun. His enduring charm and leadership has drawn volunteers of all backgrounds and especially young people to the ID to continue the rich legacy of activism and volunteers. Hanging out with Uncle Bob, enjoying the pleasure of his company, sharing a drink or two or three at the Seas, and Bush Garden. We all have our Uncle Bob stories. He is the “King of Karaoke.” When you go looking for Uncle Bob, he’s not hard to find–he’s the center of attention at the table where everyone is carrying on.