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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."
He is talking about the highly publicized 2004 murder of Doris Moore, a 30-year-old mother of four stabbed to death on the sidewalk in front of the building.
Robertson recalls another story. A resident "was going through some problems with her husband, 'cause we heard the commotion. Next thing you know we heard the ambulance and the frickin' cops and stuff. We heard that the lady chopped off the guy's penis and cracked his ass with a hot plate.
"Later on the guy died."
Robertson gets out of an elevator on the fifth floor and is stunned. "This place looks completely different. I'm happy to see this place now.
"Right here there used to be a balcony," he continues. "Some lady dropped their kid," he says, referring to a woman who threw her 9-month-old daughter from the sixth floor in 1999 and then jumped to her death.
Robertson approaches his old room. "Right here where my room was, a guy blew his brains out. A week later we seen red and brown stuff comin' out this nigga's door. Somebody opened it and we see brains all over his room; blood, frickin' maggots, his body being eaten away, decomposing and everything."
His friend Alarcon points to the top of the building. "Remember that dude that got caught up by the barbed wire when he tried to jump out the window?"
"That was nasty," Robertson says.
Porter watches Robertson and Alarcon enter Robertson's old room. Porter is the prevention coordinator for a nonprofit drug prevention program, United Coalition East Prevention. A trusted patriarchal presence on skid row, he wears a Guayabera shirt and khakis. Traces of gray weave through his short beard.
"Hundreds of youth have been systematically displaced from skid row and relocated to other neighborhoods," Porter says. "For many, skid row is safer than the neighborhoods they have been pressured to relocate to. There is no threat of territorial harassment and gang violence here."
Robertson relocated to gang-infested 48th Street and Western Avenue.
Porter says it's important to understand the history and context of the skid row community.
"In 1999 we took the Ford Hotel through the nuisance-abatement process through the Zoning Administration. Now it's being turned into affordable housing for people with mental-health issues."
Inside his old room, Robertson is decidedly impressed. "Oh my God! Look at this place. I can't believe that this was my old room. I'm thinking about moving my butt up in here now. It's like heaven. Refrigerator, microwave, stove, nice new sink. This is tight."
He looks out the window at the sun's glare reflecting off the skyscrapers in the financial district. "How much you all charging a month?" he asks senior project manager Duke Cooke.
Cooke outlines the $25 million project, "the transformation of 295 units that became 151 units for persons who are homeless or homeless with chronic mental illness."
Acquired in 2008 by SRO Housing, the project is part of a larger plan to redevelop the Seventh Street Corridor between Alameda and Main streets. The grand opening of the Ford Apartments is scheduled for Dec. 9. Some units will go to people earning up to 50 percent of the area median income (approximately $60,000).
Robertson is sullen on the walk back to Porter's office. "Man, be careful what you see around here. This is skid row, where you see drug dealing everywhere, drugs on the ground -- who knows, you might find some crack rocks on the ground."
Inside the United Coalition East Prevention office, Robertson is introspective. "I'm gonna get a job. I'm waiting for my ID to come. I got, like, five things I wanna be: mechanic, chef, artist, martial artist ... umm, that's about it."
But then he confesses, "I don't see anything for myself beyond this place."
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Robertson has been out of Los Angeles twice in his 19 years. He went to San Francisco and to San Diego.
"San Francisco, man, when I went there I was tripping out. On the street trains they got those little things on the top of the cars. It's like a bus/train. That's what it was. It was tight."