Uncle Bob Santos. • Photo by Maria Batayola
Uncle Bob Santos. • Photo by Maria Batayola

The following summary by Gary Iwamoto of “Uncle” Bob Santos’ history as an activist in the community appeared in the September 7, 2016 print edition of the International Examiner. Iwamoto collaborated with Santos on his autobiography, “Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs,” in 2002 and again in 2015 on the book, “Gang of Four.”

Robert Nicholas “Bob” Santos was born on February 25, 1934. Bob grew up in the 1930s, in what is now called the International District. Among the prostitutes, manongs (older Filipinos), and transients squatted in the often neglected and abandoned buildings, Bob developed a love and appreciation for this neighborhood. Throughout his career, Bob was a catalyst for change—as a civil rights activist, a community developer, and an advocate for affordable housing.

Bob first became involved in the civil rights movement in the ’60s through his participation with the Catholic Interracial Council. Carrying the banner of the Catholic Interracial Council, Bob marched in his first civil rights march and soon took up the struggle for open housing. Soon thereafter, he served on the City of Seattle’s Human Rights Commission.

For the next 50 years, Bob would be a passionate advocate for social justice. He marched, picketed, boycotted, and chanted for fair employment in the construction industry; justice for Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, cannery workers who were both murdered; against martial law in the Philippines; and against apartheid in South Africa. He was arrested six times for criminal trespass on the front lines of demonstrations. The charges were dropped each time.

The early 1970s was a period of time when civil unrest reached its peak, not only nationally but locally as well. The anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the labor movement took root in Seattle. In 1970, the St. Peter Claver Center was the local center of progressive activity. Finding that community service was his calling, Bob took up the management of the St. Peter Claver Center. A lot of groups met there—the Coalition Against Discrimination; the Asian Coalition for Equality; the United Farm Workers, Radical Women, and Tyree Scott and the United Construction Workers Association. The Black Panthers used it daily for their free breakfast program. For many of these groups, St. Peter Claver Center was the only place in the area where they could hold meetings. It was there where the paths of Larry Gossett, Bernie Whitebear, Roberto Maestas and Bob first crossed.

In 1972, Bob became Director of the International District Improvement Association (Inter*Im), an agency devoted to promoting the revitalization of Seattle’s International District, the traditional center for Seattle’s Asian American communities. When Bob became the director, the District had been in a steep decline. The construction of Interstate 5 in the 1960s physically divided the International District area and eliminated businesses, homes, and churches. Families has left the area. Closer to the commercial core, buildings were abandoned, some torn down for parking lots. The 1970s brought stricter building and fire codes that resulted in the closure and demolition of many buildings. Over half of the 45 hotels and apartments in the area were closed. Businesses failed and buildings deteriorated. The construction of the nearby Kingdome, beginning in 1972, generated traffic and parking problems for the district.

As director of Inter*Im, Bob was instrumental in sponsoring, developing, and providing seed money for needed social services programs such as mental health counseling (the Asian Counseling and Referral Service); child day care (the Denise Louie Education Center), community health services (the International Community Health Services), and tenant advocacy services (the International District Housing Alliance). In addition, under Bob’s leadership, 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.

In 1985, Bob became a community-based aide to U.S. Congressman Mike Lowry and served the Congressmen until Lowry made an unsuccessful bid for senator. It was during this time, while working on the senatorial campaign for Lowry, that Bob first met Sharon Tomiko Miyake, who was coordinating the campaign’s phone bank. They would later marry in 1992.

In 1989, Bob returned to the International District as the executive director of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda). Bob was instrumental in bringing badly needed housing back to revitalizing the District. He spearheaded federal housing grants, low interest loans, and partnership development agreements to support 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 thirty years ago to acquire the site, an abandoned bus maintenance and storage facility, from Metro.

In 1994, Bob was asked to serve as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Regional Director (Region X), a position he held for seven years in the Clinton Administration. During that tenure he established many new HUD-sponsored housing programs in urban, rural, and tribal areas. As an advocate for the homeless, he was the first director to open up the Federal Building as an emergency shelter. He was selected by then-Seattle Mayor Paul Schell to be the key negotiator between officials and the World Trade Organization demonstrators in the 1990s which drew national and international attention.

After the Bush Administration took office in 2001, Bob was again tapped to serve as the executive director of the Inter*Im, a position he held until he retired in 2006. But he never really retired. He still gave tours, speeches, and advice for Inter*Im until the day he died. Interim CDA established the Bob Santos Sustainability Award in his honor to recognize those who made significant contributions to improving the quality of life in the community. Recipients of the Bob Santos Sustainability Award include Martha Choe, Tim Otani, and Sue Taoka.

His relationships with other minority community leaders Bernie Whitebear, executive director of the United Indians for All Tribes; Roberto Maestas, executive director of El Centro de la Raza; and King County Councilman Larry Gossett, former executive director of the Central Area Motivation Program, were not only political alliances but strong friendships. Collectively, they became known as the “Gang of Four.” 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. Serving a little on ham on rice, the “Gang of Four” performed skits and musical numbers and were the most popular amateur act at Northwest Asian American Theatre’s Annual Community Showoff.

In 1992, the “Gang of Four” were invited by invited by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide Japanese government and business leaders with insights about grassroots democracy, the relationships of American minority communities working with each other, and U.S.-Japan relations. They met with government and private officials, the press, and youth groups in a variety of formal and informal gatherings in a six-day period in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Kobe. The Gang of Four made written and oral presentations about their respective communities, their grassroots organizing, their ability to work together as a coalition, and their struggles as minorities to be accepted in a dominant white country.

In 2002, Bob wrote an autobiography of his life in the trenches, Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs (Seattle: International Examiner Press 2002.) In 2015, he co-authored (with Gary Iwamoto) Gang of Four: Four Leaders. Four Communities. One Friendship. (Chin Music Press 2015), which detailed the friendships between Santos, Whitebear, Maestas, and Gossett over a span of forty years.

Bob was 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. Bob’s major accomplishment can be viewed through the revitalization of the International District as a viable neighborhood where people live and work. Prior to Bob’s involvement, the International District was a decaying neighborhood. That it stands today is a testament to the legacy of the man we loved as “Uncle Bob.”

Bob is survived by his wife, Sharon Tomiko Santos, his six children Danny, Simone, Robin, Tom, John, and Nancy, his 19 grandchildren, and his 16 great-grandchildren.

Bob Santos passed away on August 27, 2016. The family requests that remembrances be made to International District Emergency Center, P. O. Box 14103 Seattle, WA 98114 or Inter*Im CDA, 310 Maynard Ave. S. Seattle, WA 98104.  

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Legendary activist, community leader ‘Uncle’ Bob Santos passes away at age 82

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