Uncle Bob Santos Fought “Gentrification” Before it Had a Name

by Cherry Cayabyab

Warmly deemed “Uncle” by all, Bob Santos, longtime resident of South Seattle and Rainier Beach, passed away at 82 years old on Saturday, August 27.  Uncle Bob influenced countless housing, health, labor and community economic development reforms locally and nationally. He inspired countless activists and leaders to dedicate their lives to racial and social justice through public service.

Known as its “unofficial mayor”, Uncle Bob had lasting impact beyond the Chinatown International District (CID) neighborhood. In South Seattle, low-income housing projects like Samaki Commons were developed by InterIm Community Development Association – the first organization Uncle Bob founded in the CID to provide affordable housing for seniors and workers. InterIm also developed or advised community gathering spaces such as the Laos Highland Community Center and the Filipino Community Center Village expansion – both along MLK Ave in Southeast Seattle. 

Other nonprofit organizations Uncle Bob co-founded opened additional facilities such as the International Community Health Services Clinic in New Holly and Denise Louie Education Center in Beacon Hill; or altogether moved offices, such as Asian Counseling and Referral Services, to be more centrally located and expand services to the Rainier Valley.

Uncle Bob, Cherry Cayabyab and Elaine Ko at his home, New Years Eve (2009) Rainier Beach.  Photo courtesy of Cherry Cayabyab

I first met Uncle Bob in 2002 through the national nonprofit I worked at – National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (CAPACD) – which he also helped found.  Uncle Bob and community leaders across the nation found commonality in struggling with displacement and gentrification in historically working class, ethnic neighborhoods (such as Chinatowns, Manilatowns, Little Tokyos and more) and convened in Seattle in 1999 to form National CAPACD. They understood the importance of coming together as a coalition on a national level and advocating collectively for increased public and private investment in diverse, low-income neighborhoods.

Rooted in the struggle to preserve Seattle’s CID neighborhood, Uncle Bob fought displacement and “gentrification” before we began calling it that. Growing up in Seattle’s Chinatown with a vibrant mix of Asian residents of primarily Chinese, Japanese and Filipino descent, Uncle Bob saw and experienced first-hand the lack of basic health, housing, and economic opportunities resulting from neighborhood neglect and non-investment.

Over decades, the forward-thinking visionary utilized his unique combination of interpersonal skills, street savvy and political wit as a multi-sector activist. Uncle Bob co-founded nonprofit organizations to provide comprehensive, culturally relevant services conveniently accessible within the neighborhood: housing, health, mental and counseling services, senior care, daycare and more.  These nonprofits continue to provide critical advocacy and social services for immigrant and refugee communities today.  The CID is often looked to as a model for best practices and lessons learned for equitable development efforts in neighborhoods across the country.

“There is no doubt that the anti-displacement and neighborhood preservation work led by Uncle Bob in the International District profoundly inspired similar efforts in South Seattle and beyond.  Uncle Bob’s legacy includes many leaders he mentored who would move on to lead housing and economic development projects focused on addressing gentrification and displacement in South Seattle,” says Sharon Maeda, Uncle Bob’s long-time colleague.

Uncle Bob was also a pioneer in multi-racial community organizing and institutional-community partnerships in Seattle. In solidarity with activists like Tyree Scott and Michael Woo of the United Construction Workers Association, they got arrested for shutting down the construction of the I-90 freeway to protest the lack of hiring local workers of color on the publicly-funded construction project.  He engaged in cross-coalition work with African American, Native, Latino and Asian communities and co-founded the legislative and policy advocacy nonprofit Minority Executive Directors Coalition (MEDC) with the “Gang of Four” – Larry Gossett, Bernie Whitebear and Roberto Maestas. 

When Bob was appointed the Northwest Regional Director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) during the Clinton Administration, he was a tireless homelessness advocate – successfully converting the first floor of the old federal building into a homeless shelter. In this role, he also advocated for increased public investments and resources to diverse, low-income neighborhoods across the Pacific Northwest.”

Reading Uncle Bob’s book “Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs!” had a lot to do with my decision to move to Seattle (versus New York) for graduate school from Washington DC. With the CID’s rich history, it was a great place to get my grounding on neighborhood-based community-building, organizing and community economic development.  

Uncle Bob gave me my first Seattle job at InterIm.  I got my “initiation” on my first day as a CID nonprofit worker at the popular, local karaoke bar Bush Gardens. I didn’t have any direct family or know many people when I first moved here so Uncle Bob – beyond being my boss – was that parental figure and mentor.  He took me in, coached me and introduced me to many movers and shakers in the region. In reflection, he has a lot to do with the incredible community networks and support systems I have today.

Cherry and Uncle Bob, (2008).  Photo courtesy of Cherry Cayabyab

Uncle Bob was the ultimate community builder, coalition organizer and networker. He understood moving forward together to get things done was about building trust and relationships. I can only hope that my inclusive community engagement and capacity building work in South Seattle and King County with immigrant and refugee communities channels his values, approach and ethics. 

As I work with institutions on equity and inclusion, community self-determination is the core mantra – inspired by mentors like Uncle Bob and Michael Woo.  How are institutions and ally organizations supporting, resourcing and partnering with communities so that we are all leaders in shaping what’s best for our families and our neighborhoods and succeeding together?

Photo courtesy of Cherry Cayabyab


 Bob’s biggest legacy are the countless community leaders he’s nurtured over the decades – many of whom are social justice community organizers, nonprofit staff, executive directors and elected/appointed officials. As South Seattle continues to grow and change and as it fights to retain its distinctly rich, multicultural neighborhood character, we can find comfort in knowing there are generations of us who will continue the work of trailblazers like Uncle Bob Santos – who helped pave the way for preserving and protecting vulnerable neighborhoods…before that “G” word ever came about.

 A celebration and remembrance in honor of Robert “Uncle Bob” Santos will be held on Friday, September 23 from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. at WaMu Theater at CenturyLink Field (800 Occidental Avenue S., Seattle, WA 98134).

Featured Image  via King County/Flickr


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