As the unofficial mayor of the Chinatown International District, Bob Santos helped save turn-of-the-century hotels and turn them into low-income...

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As the unofficial mayor of the Chinatown International District, Bob Santos helped save turn-of-the-century hotels and turn them into low-income housing.

He built a health clinic, a community garden for apartment-bound grandmothers, and a child-care center for working moms in the 1970s, long before society had fully accepted the idea.

But Santos’ true legacy lies in what cannot be found there — a prison, a garbage-burning plant, McDonald’s.

The Chinatown International District could have gone the way of Pioneer Square. Santos, though, didn’t want to see the historic buildings he had grown up in gutted for high-priced office space. So he has spent more than three decades keeping his old neighborhood a place where people could afford — and want — to live.

“We’ve had to be alert to the kind of development that would have destroyed the community,” said Santos, 71, who will retire next year as executive director of Inter*Im Community Development Association. “You don’t see a prison, a work-release center, an energy-treatment plant. We were able to build housing for seniors and working families.”

He’s gotten it done by being the flamethrower with a bullhorn, the crooner at the karaoke bar and a consummate politico working the inside game. To most everyone, he’s Uncle Bob, always ready with a song by Sinatra and a story of revolution.

“The evidence, the facts, the amazing achievements speak for themselves,” said Roberto Maestas, who heads El Centro de la Raza, a Beacon Hill community center. ” … he challenged powerful forces that were going to essentially eradicate, in my opinion, the presence of Chinatown.”

Santos’ activism has spanned the decades since the civil-rights era. He has been arrested at demonstrations six times. After three unsuccessful runs for public office, Santos served as regional director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton. He later returned to lead Inter*Im, a nonprofit that encourages community-based development.

He has gone from fighting The Man to working for The Man, and back again.

“I don’t consider retiring, retiring,” said Santos, who is married to his third wife, state Rep. Sharon Tomiko-Santos, D-Seattle. “I consider this a new phase of involvement. I’m not going to stay home and fish.”

Son of a prizefighter

Santos grew up in the Central Area, the son of a Filipino prizefighter, Sockin’ Sammy Santos. His mother died when he was an infant, and the N.P. Hotel where his dad lived, the gambling halls and bathhouses of the International District became his playground.

He spent high-school summers working in the fish canneries in Alaska, and joined the Marines after graduation. When he returned to Seattle, he worked in Boeing’s hammer shop, then sold insurance for the Knights of Columbus.

He showed up at a march sponsored by the Catholic Interracial Council to support open housing. Someone handed him a pole, so he carried the banner.

That led to more marches, and a job as director of CARITAS, a social-service agency. Because it was housed in the St. Peter Claver Center where many activists gathered, Santos got drawn into civil-rights meetings, rallies and demonstrations.

By the mid-’60s, the International District had become what Santos called a ghetto. Interstate 5 had carved up the area and forced several businesses to be razed. Shootings and assaults were frequent.

To bring the area back, a group of business owners formed Inter*Im in 1968. Santos joined the board two years later, then became its executive director, around the time the county started to build the Kingdome.

Many feared the dome would hurt the neighborhood. Officials at the groundbreaking ceremony were pelted with mudballs.

The Kingdome protests formed the basis of his one-man show in 1994, “Uncle Bob’s Neighborhood.” One protest sign, “Hum Bows Not Hot Dogs,” became the title of his 2002 autobiography.

Renovated buildings

When new fire codes shut down 17 buildings and displaced hundreds of residents in the International District in the ’70s, Santos found public and private money to buy and renovate buildings. The Bush Hotel, the Eastern Hotel and N.P. Hotel became low-income housing.

The big stick was community support. While he was raising money for the child-care center, he spoke to a Seafirst Bank vice president, who demanded 10-year revenue projections.

After 10 minutes of grilling, Santos said he told the banker, “Sir, we are only requesting a lousy $1,000, so why don’t you just stick these questions up your [expletive]. While we’re at it, we’ll withdraw the Inter*Im account … and we’ll see that every elderly resident in the community withdraws their savings account from your bank. Oh yeah, then we’ll picket and boycott your bank … daily.”

The next day (former mayor) Norm Rice, then a Rainier Bank official, took him to lunch, said he heard about the Seafirst incident and handed him a $1,500 check. Seafirst also contributed.

“The threat of confrontation has always been there, even as we built a position of respect,” Santos said. “Even to the present time, the activism is alive.”

He succeeded in turning an old Metro bus maintenance facility into the International District Village Square, housing a library, Asian Counseling and Referral Service and Domingo-Viernes Apartments, housing for low-income seniors and working families. Even the parking lot under the I-5 overpass can be traced back to Santos’ work at Inter*Im.

While serving on U.S. Rep. Mike Lowry’s staff, he negotiated the release of hostages in El Salvador. In 1994, he was appointed regional director of HUD, and used part of a federal building as a homeless shelter.

During the WTO riots in 1999, Santos brokered a peace between the Seattle police department and anarchists, who refused to vacate a downtown Seattle building.

“Bob used to come out of the classic style of advocate, you take a bullhorn and you organize the groups, and you are very strategic about organizing protests and putting pressure where it needs to be applied,” said former state Rep. Kip Tokuda. “He evolved into a leader that really understood politics, understood how to move City Hall and the county and the state in much more politically strategic ways. It’s more the inside game.”

Member of Gang of Four

Santos has irked those who would prefer the area to be called only Chinatown instead of the Chinatown International District.

But he has also reached beyond the Asian-American community, co-founding the King County Minority Executive Directors Coalition with his old activist friends, the so-called Gang of Four: Maestas, King County Councilman Larry Gossett and the late Bernie Whitebear. The group brings together leaders of 120 minority nonprofits to ensure funding for social services.

The Gang of Four (including Whitebear, posthumously), along with the coalition’s executive director, received the Bridge Builders award in Washington, D.C., last month from the Partners for Livable Communities.

As former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer introduced the recipients at the $1,000-a-plate dinner, those at the Maestas, Gossett and Santos table stood and chanted, “El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido.” The other table shouted, “The people united, will never be divided.”

Then Santos got on stage and opened with “Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue. And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true … It’s always been a dream of mine to be recognized on a national stage.”

Tickled by the D.C. dinner, Santos asked Inter*Im to make his upcoming retirement party black-tie optional. He plans to work as a nonpaid consultant on community causes once a new director is hired.

“There’s still discrimination out there,” Santos said in a recent interview at Bush Garden’s karaoke bar. The post 9-11 hysteria reminds him of the Japanese-American internment. He watches the security checkpoints at airports and says only people of color get stopped. “Those kinds of subtle things are still real,” he said.

The work, it seems, is far from over.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com