"Uncle Bob" Santos’ skill at bridging divides, though often not without a little salty language, was a driving force behind the preservation of Seattle’s Chinatown International District. He died Saturday at 82.
As anti-war and social-justice protests gripped Seattle in the 1970s, activists would storm into the mayor’s office or the City Council chambers, screaming and threatening to burn things down.
Then they would storm out, tipping over furniture as they went, and Robert “Uncle Bob” Santos and a few other cooler heads would be left behind.
“We became the negotiators,” Santos recalled in an oral history.
That ability to bridge the divide helped Santos accomplish many of his ambitious goals for the city and its residents — especially the preservation and improvement of the Chinatown International District where he was born.
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“Without Uncle Bob’s voice and leadership, I think the neighborhood would probably have been gentrified out of existence,” said Ron Chew, director of the International Community Health Services Foundation. “You wouldn’t see the rich, unique character that shines through.”
Santos, who died Saturday at 82, also nurtured a new generation of activists, said Chew, who was a college student when he first met Uncle Bob.
“A lot of younger folks would not have been inspired to come back and volunteer and work in the neighborhood if not for Uncle Bob.”
Officials from Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to Gov. Jay Inslee issued statements mourning Santos’ passing and praising his work and legacy.
“Bob was a forward thinker,” Inslee wrote. “His early days as an activist with the ‘Gang of Four’ helped bring communities of color together in one unified voice to fight for equal rights.”
The gang included Asian, African-American, Native American and Latino activists who joined forces to push for common goals and more resources, instead of competing for scraps of funding.
“All of a sudden you had 100, 200 people at a demonstration, and that really got the attention of the local media and local government,” Santos said in the 2004 oral-history interview.
Though he often took on the role of negotiator, Santos also had a fiery streak. He was known for salty language and was arrested six times at demonstrations for causes including open housing and minority hiring on construction crews.
In his autobiography “Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs!: Memoirs of a Savvy Asian-American Activist,” Santos described his encounter with a bank president who balked at donating $1,000 for a child-care center in the Chinatown International District.
“After 10 minutes of grilling, I stopped him and said: ‘Sir, we are only requesting a lousy $1,000, so why don’t you stick these questions up your ass?’ ”
Santos then threatened picketing and a boycott by Asian and other minority bank customers. The donation materialized a week later.
The title of the book came from one of Santos’ biggest campaigns, to ensure that construction of the Kingdome sports stadium in the early 1970s didn’t harm neighboring Asian communities.
The stadium is long gone, demolished in 2000. But many of the concessions Santos extracted from the city continue to flourish in the Chinatown International District, including a community center and health clinic.
“This was the 1970s,” said Gary Iwamoto, who helped with Santos’ memoir and another book, “Gang of Four: Four Leaders, Four Communities, One Friendship.” “There were no counseling services, no mental-health or health clinics or day-care centers for people in the International District.”
Much of Santos’ most influential work was accomplished through the International District Improvement Association, called “Inter*Im,” which he led or worked with for more than 30 years. He also helped found the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority.
When Santos took the helm at Inter*Im in 1972, the neighborhood had recently been split down the middle by construction of Interstate 5. Abandoned buildings outnumbered occupied buildings on some blocks, and crime was rampant.
Santos helped start a community garden on a weed-choked hillside, worked with owners to upgrade crumbling old hotels and apartment buildings, and pulled in funding for elderly and low-income housing.
During his tenure, the neighborhood gained 1,000 residential units, according to HistoryLink.
Santos and his allies also fought off several undesirable developments, including a prison, a work-release center, a trash-burning plant and even a McDonald’s fast-foot restaurant.
The son of Filipino boxer “Sockin” Sammy” Santos and Virginia Nicol Santos, who had both Filipino and Native American ancestry, Bob Santos said his social activism blossomed gradually.
As child during World War II, he saw scores of fellow students vanish when they and their parents were shipped to Japanese-American interment camps. As a teenager, Santos worked in Alaska salmon canneries, where white workers got better food and housing than the Filipinos.
His first protest march in Seattle was in support of efforts to outlaw neighborhood restrictions on homeownership by Asians and African Americans.
Through it all, he kept his good humor, Iwamoto said.
“Bob was the kind of guy who was a persuader,” Iwamoto said. “He was rarely angry. He was more analytical.”
And when tension built, Santos had the perfect outlet: karaoke.
For years, he ran the Tuesday night karaoke at Bush Garden restaurant, belting out songs made famous by Elvis and Frank Sinatra.
“I used to joke that he sang nothing but dead- white-guy songs,” Iwamoto said. “He loved to do ‘My Way.’ ”
Plans for a memorial service are pending.