Robert "Bob" Santos Oral History, Part 2: Preserving a Neighborhood, Building a Community Business, Providing Health Care

  • Posted 10/28/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10962

Bob Santos (1934-2016), born and raised in Seattle's Chinatown-International District, spent most of his life as an activist in his old neighborhood -- saving it, nurturing it, defending it against outside threats, whether environmental, cultural, or political. Considered the unofficial mayor of the ID and known to most as Uncle Bob, he was arrested six times fighting for civil rights. On July 30, 2014, he sat down for an interview with HistoryLink.org intern Alex Cail and that interview is presented here in four parts. In Part 2, Santos describes the fight to preserve the International District from threats posed by developers and sports stadiums; working to replace dilapidated housing with new homes, particularly for the elderly; turning the upheaval of Interstate 5 barging through the community into a successful commercial parking operation; and providing professional health care to neighborhood residents.

Changing Times

This area, where I grew up, started to be impacted by a lot of construction, a lot of displacement of the people who built the community here. The Asian immigrants that came from China, Japan, and the Philippines, the first wave, were segregated into this neighborhood, and there were covenants all over Seattle, so people of color were unable to purchase housing outside of certain zones, in certain neighborhoods. And the Asians, when they came over here, were segregated to this neighborhood.

In the '60s, I-5 was built, Interstate 5, and right after that was constructed there was I-90 that was planned and built on the south side of the district. Then the Kingdome, the multipurpose stadium was being planned on the west side of the district. So, we could just see the writing on the wall, the activists saw that there was a danger of many of our people, our residents, our parents and our grandparents, being displaced out of their homes, because of all of this pressure of construction.

The property values were low, and then developers were sort of hovering, and when the stadium was built, other developers were sort of hovering because they wanted to build businesses in Pioneer Square in the International District, to cater to the folks that were going to the stadium. So, the activists, the Asian activists, got very involved and committed to preserve this community for our parents -- our pioneers -- and there were demonstrations against the stadium. Once they built it we used that issue as a lever for mitigation of the impacts of the stadium.

A bunch of activists were involved in the non-profit organization called Inter*Im -- the International District Improvement Association, also known as Inter*Im. It was started up by the business community and property owners, and it was infiltrated by the activists. I was hired as director of Inter*Im in 1972, and I started organizing the businesses, the property owners, the residents, and started to put pressure on local government -- the mayor's office, the county executive, even the state -- to make sure that for the impacts of the stadium on this community, there was mitigation in return.                    

Preserving the Community

Housing preservation, renovation of old housing stock was a priority. The construction of new housing, so that we could move some of the old folks from the dilapidated housing into new housing, was a priority, and that was actually prioritized by the city, this area being one of the number one neighborhoods for the new round of funds that was coming from the government into the city, and distributed to the communities. And we were on top of the list.

We got the County to agree that this would be a priority for the first round of housing. The County also allocated funds to start up a health clinic, we started up our own childcare center, for the working families, the working mothers in the community. We built across the street [from the Panama Hotel], if you ever go up on the hill here, you'll see this beautiful oasis, it's a community garden, we built that for the old folks. The garden area was one of those projects -- we started building it in 1974, it was completed in 1975, but it brought all the elements of the community together -- the business community, the property owners, the residents who became gardeners, and the activists who built it -- so that was one of the projects that was very popular to support.

When the immigrants first came to this country, they were forced to live in the buildings here, the highrises -- not highrises, I think we could only go up about 60 feet or so; four stories at the tallest. And everyone lived in SRO [single-room occupancy] housing that I mentioned. And the room that my dad and I lived in was nine feet by 13 feet. You have a bed, you have a dresser, you have a little closet, and that was it. And then you shared the bathrooms ... and the bathtubs, down the hall. It's your home forever and you're trying to raise a family.

So we started to really gain a lot of traction in terms of making it a lot easier for people to exist in this turbulent neighborhood -- freeways, and stadiums were being built, and we're surrounded by concrete you know. And so, the more housing that we built, and community gardens and the health clinic, the old folks were able to relax. Because when they see all the construction cranes around the district, they're frightened about what is their future? As long as we started building housing for them and stabilizing the community, they were able to sleep at night and relax a little bit. You know, tension was very high with the residents, because they didn't know if they'd be living in the same neighborhood next week, next month, next year.

We also worked with the city to come up with a protective ordinance in this community, called the International District Special Review Ordinance, which was an extra layer of zoning. So that helped stabilize the community. A lot of foreign investors were investing in Asian communities in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the major cities, but they sort of stayed away from the International District because we had this one extra level of zoning that people didn't want to deal with.

That was the essence of my career. Ending up working in the same neighborhood I grew up in, so that was pretty cool.

Growing up in a room 9-by-13, as a little kid, I wouldn't bring my schoolmates to visit, because we didn't want to show people that we only lived in one room. And I'd go to our school kids' homes, and they had backyards, you know, their own rooms, and all that stuff. And even growing up and into adulthood, you knew that there was something better for the people who were living in my neighborhood. Something better out there. First you have to learn the political process, and then we could use the resources to build decent, affordable housing for these, for the pioneers, for my parents and grandparents. That was the motivation that kept me going down here.

And we looked at other cities. In the early '70s we traveled up and down the coast to see what kind of programs that other communities similar to ours were doing. And we found out that displacement was a big issue. In San Francisco, you have San Francisco Chinatown, sort of west of Kearny Street. And then east of Kearny Street used to be 10 blocks of Manilatown, and Manilatown in San Francisco was completely wiped out when they built the financial district. When we looked at that we said "Hey, that could happen in Seattle," and we didn't want that to happen, so we got very militant in terms of calling together activists that fought against this displacement.

Lemons into Lemonade

[W]hen they built the freeway, it was elevated over the community, so you had all this airspace under the freeway. Now, Inter*Im, half of the board and Inter*Im supporters were opposed to the stadium. The others, the business community and property owners were sort of supporting the stadium. So when the opportunity came to talk to the State about the airspace under the freeway, we said: "Well, we could use that airspace to develop a parking lot for the residents and customers in the community, in the stadium."  And we said: "This is mitigation for you destroying part of our community." The state agreed with that, so they leased the airspace under the freeway to Inter*Im, and we built 230 parking stalls.

The first couple years that we were running it, we were charging $6 per stall. You couldn't give it away, you couldn't give away parking. No one would park there. And the city came up with the Magic Carpet service, which was free bus service downtown. We had the original south boundary extended to 8th and Jackson where our parking lot was, so we discovered Park 'n' Ride, we were the ones that invented that, the first Park 'n' Ride parking lot in the state.

So we got into the parking lot business, because the activists, even though we were opposed to the stadium, we knew that they were going to build the damn thing. There was no way we were going to stop it, there was too much money involved, and so we decided, "Let's get in the parking lot business." And from there we started up the Merchant's Parking Association, and we then controlled 18 parking lots in this community, run by a non-profit. So that was pretty cool. We got more business sense.

Your non-profits don't usually get that kind of business sense right away. You have to learn to experience that. To run an organization like, for example, the health clinic, where we hire health professionals, and then on the board of directors we appoint people that are in a medical field -- nurses, doctors, and all that kind of stuff. The budget of the health clinic was $95,000 the first year. And we started to grow, from five health professionals, to over 200 health professionals working the health clinic today, and they've expanded to three satellite programs -- one in South Seattle, one in Bellevue, one in Shoreline. Two maybe $15- to $20-million dollar operations.

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