Travelle Robertson takes no notice of a large black woman in a bright orange T-shirt exhibiting her substantial bare breasts to passing traffic as he walks Gladys Street near Sixth Street downtown. He's numb to the madness -- he'd seen it all by the time he was 9 years old.
Now 19, the smart and charismatic former skid row wild child who raised himself in the nefarious Ford Hotel is revisiting the scene of his boyhood nightmares. He wants to inspect the transformation of the old hotel, now under way by new owners SRO Housing Corp.
Robertson wears a backward baseball cap, white T-shirt, plaid shorts and black sneakers with fat green laces. He is flanked by his friend and former Ford resident, 19-year-old Abraham Alarcon Jr., and a mentor, Charles Porter. They approach the renovation in progress at the newly renamed Ford Apartments.
"It looks completely different, for real," Robertson says as he looks up at huge scaffolding in front of the six-story building. "This place looks beautiful."
The Ford was built in 1925. Its legal history in recent years reads like a skid row crack dealer's rap sheet.
In 1993, about the time Robertson came into the world, the Ford's then-owners were slapped with an injunction by a Superior Court judge requiring tighter security at the hotel.
Cops described the Ford as the worst drug-trafficking spot in central Los Angeles. Police made more than 60 narcotics-related arrests at the hotel and seized about $120,000 worth of drugs and $80,000 in cash in 1992 and 1993.
In 1996, a former Ford owner was ordered to pay $10,106 in fines and costs for building, safety and health violations, and was placed on two years' probation. In '97, a Beverly Hills slumlord pleaded guilty to 10 counts of violating health and safety codes at the hotel.
Robertson is seeing the place for the first time since he relocated a couple of years ago. The sound of screaming babies, the interminable tumult of off-meds psychiatric patients and anarchic addicts have been supplanted by buzz saws and drills. Freshly painted smooth brown, green and yellow plaster walls are clear signs of new life in the old hotel.
"I didn't know it was fucked up," Robertson says. "When I was little I had pictures in my head. I think I started figuring it out over the years. I started figuring out that it was twisted.
"Man, it was ghetto up in the Ford. Crackheads and handicap people. Lots of murders, lots of killings. I even witnessed a death right in my face. She was like a mother to me. It was messed up, seeing her die."