Uncle Bob Santos is a man needing no introduction.
One of Seattle’s renowned civil rights leaders, Santos spearheaded community development in the Chinatown International District (CID) following the devastating construction of I-5 through the neighborhood.
Born and raised in Seattle, Santos was the director of the InterIm Community Development Association (InterIm CDA) in the 1970s and ‘80s, and later, the regional director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The legacy of Santos, who passed away in 2016, is still felt in the neighborhood, one that endures thanks to the tightly-wound community support of those who live here.
At Uncle Bob’s Place, an affordable housing complex developed by InterIm CDA and named in honor of Santos, a row of red balconies adorned with community-created designs stands out amid the brick buildings found in the rest of the district.
“We knew the [building] was going to be called Uncle Bob’s Place before construction started,” said Leslie Morishita, Real Estate Development Manager with InterIm. “So we wanted to make sure to have more than just the name and to integrate elements that really speak about Uncle Bob’s life and legacy and what he believed in, what he cared about.”
Working with the architects of the building, the team at InterIm decided to place the most visual significance on the south-facing balcony railings, coloring them a bright red that can be easily seen from the street.
From there, a steering committee was formed consisting of Bob Santos’ widow State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, as well as a group of his trusted friends, with the goal of determining what should be on the balconies. The committee decided on 12 core themes, representing areas of human rights that were core to Bob Santos.
“At first they started with the idea of having each balcony be owned or sponsored by a different community-based organization, and then that organization would help to guide the design based on their mission in the community,” Morishita said. “And then the more [the committee] talked, they were like, ‘Uncle Bob’s interests were much broader than that — he was not just a community activist, but a human rights activist.’”
From there, the committee requested artist proposals. 12 artists from around the CID community were selected, and each chose a theme that resonated with them the most.
Carina A. del Rosario, a Seattle resident since the 1990s and one of the 12 artists, selected the theme of intergenerational relationships, which strongly informed her work.
“While I was at ACRS [Asian Counseling and Referral Service], one of the things I was involved with was the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition,” del Rosario said. “I remember distinctly after we organized one of these big events, everybody would gather at the Bush Garden afterward to celebrate and to hang out and Uncle Bob was always there. And it would be multiple generations of people rocking the mic.”
Those meetings are illustrated in del Rosario’s balcony piece, a festive gathering at the garden focusing on Bob Santos with many background individuals based on del Rosario’s real colleagues who attended the meetings with her.
“I knew specifically which folks I saw at Bush Garden all the time,” said del Rosario. “And so I actually reached out to them directly to have them share with me their memories of Uncle Bob… It was just really sweet to hear their reminiscences of Uncle Bob and really just talking about how deep their relationship was.”
This idea of memory is a throughline in a majority of the pieces atop the balconies, including Lauren Iida’s work, Objects of Collective Memory. The design, a “memory net” of hand-cut paper translated into the metal on the building now, is a mosaic of symbolic objects from Japanese Americans throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“[The net] has symbolic objects that are ‘trapped’ inside of it that represent past times, places, cultural events, historical events,” Iida said. “I did take input from some Japanese Americans… I asked them what symbolic objects were important to them, having to do with their Japanese American cultural heritage or their family’s incarceration history.”
Some of the other 12 artists featured in this project include Juan Alonso-Rodríguez, with the theme of health and well-being, and Monyee Chau, with the theme of community building and preservation. The artists, as well as the team at InterIm, believe that both the building and the designs can serve as permanent reminders of Bob Santos’ legacy of community support.
“I’m really hopeful because there’s a lot of young people who are very much inspired by Uncle Bob, and some that even knew him,” Morishita said. “His flavor of community organizing [was] really based on relationships, and caring for everyone in the community… I think it’s going to continue; it’s continuing now.”
Rep. Santos cites a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that she believes encapsulates her husband’s legacy as a civil rights activist:
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works.
“Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
With continued dedication toward age-old communities, along with hard-working new generations stepping into the fold, Uncle Bob Santos’ legacy will endure for decades to come. The balcony designs are just a symbol of that — community, perseverance, and the relational bonds that hold everybody together.
Uncle Bob’s Place is located at 417 Eighth Ave. S.