Living To Tell The Tale: Pigeon Hill, Then And Now

Jeffrey Wolin's new show pairs photos of residents of Bloomington’s subsidized housing projects taken in the late 80s with their current portraits.

  • 15-year-old girl in metallica t-shirt at sunset

    Image 1 of 10

    Photo: Jeffrey Wolin

    "I was only four when I saw my first stabbing—a drug deal gone bad. I knew I had to be tough just to survive on Pigeon Hill. My mom was a nurse but she got into drugs and left when I was nine. Odds were I’d have a kid by the time I was fifteen, like many of my friends. But I didn’t want that—I wanted to get off the Hill.”

  • woman emerging from parked car

    Image 2 of 10

    Photo: Jeffrey Wolin

    “I live out in the country with my husband, Luke, and sometimes my daughter. She has a more protected childhood than I did. I’m employed as a Water Quality Engineer at the Indiana American Water Plant in Terre Haute—it’s a 54.4 mile commute from home to work each way. I’ve taken up drag racing on the weekends in a 1973 Plymouth Scamp that Luke modified for me.”

  • shirtless teenager holding ferret

    Image 3 of 10

    Photo: Jeffrey Wolin

    “Around this time I was expelled from high school for fighting and smoking in the boys room. I wanted to race Sprint cars for World of Outlaws—my uncle had one and I got to work on it sometimes. But when he died I didn’t want to race any more.”

  • man in prison yard, barbed wire overhead

    Image 4 of 10

    Photo: Jeffrey Wolin

    “I am serving a two and a half year sentence at Wabash Valley for non-support of a dependent. It’s my third time for the same offense. I’m supposed to get out on work release in April.”

  • little girl and her aunt, hugging

    Image 5 of 10

    Photo: Jeffrey Wolin

    “Crystal was my favorite niece. On that day I had just got back from the asthma doctor with my son, Marvin. Crystal was close to Marvin. She didn’t have many friends. A lot of people wouldn’t hang around with Grubbs. Crystal was a happy kid with a big smile. She always said when she grew up she wanted to have kids and be a good mom. I’ll always miss her.”

  • woman holds portrait of her niece as a little girl

    Image 6 of 10

    Photo: Jeffrey Wolin

    “Crystal was killed in September 2010 by three guys. Adrian Henley, Alvin Fry and John Sergent. The police know who murdered her. They charged them with cooking meth but not murder. The police messed up the case. They’re hoping one of the three will crack and name the murderer. I didn’t see much of Crystal after her second daughter, Rosie, was born and Crystal started to party. That’s when she began hanging out with Adrian. None of us liked him but Crystal was addicted to Adrian. Imagine her two girls growing up not knowing their mother. One day we will get justice for her.”

  • young man sitting at a table, looking at the wound on his leg

    Image 7 of 10

    Photo: Jeffrey Wolin

    “A guy named Dirk shot me with a .410 shotgun out at Lake Monroe. We’d all been drinking. I heard the ‘pow’. I looked down and saw blood covering my leg. I used my shirt as a tourniquet—I’d just gotten out of the Marines. I took your photograph of my wounds to the prosecutor and it was used at the trial to convict him. He got 8 years and served a year and a half.”

  • man sits at the table and displays the scar on his leg

    Image 8 of 10

    Photo: Jeffrey Wolin

    “I’m 50 now. I was almost 25 when I got shot. When I look at this scar, I feel that I’m blessed. I spent 3 days in the hospital thinking I could be dead and this third day would be my funeral. In that instant my life could have been over. It made me think how important my family was to me. It also made me think, if I could survive this I can survive anything.”

  • young man with tattoo in front of home

    Image 9 of 10

    Photo: Jeffrey Wolin

    “My tattoo was from an album cover by a heavy metal band called, ‘Dangerous Toys.’ We didn’t go to school much. I was just surviving—not thinking about my future. I was just an empty shell. We moved around a lot. I didn’t stay in any one school very long but we always came back to the Hill.”

  • man in front of his home

    Image 10 of 10

    Photo: Jeffrey Wolin

    “I work for a moving and storage company. I’m stressed to the max. I should have stayed in school. My house is falling apart. I live in the country now. I didn’t want to leave the Hill at first but it’s peaceful out here. I have a garden out back. We’re renting to own. In about a year this land will be ours.”

Event Information

Jeffrey Wolin, Pigeon Hill: Then And Now

An exhibition pairing black-and-white photos of residents of Bloomington’s subsidized housing projects taken in the late 80s with their current portraits.


Catherine Edelman Gallery, 300 W. Superior St. Chicago, IL 60654

January 10-March 1, 2014, Tuesday - Saturday 10:00 - 5:30 pm

Edelman Gallery

TK-21: La Revue

Pigeon Hill: Then And Now

Bloomington’s housing projects are less than two miles away from Indiana University, where Jeffrey Wolin has been teaching photography since 1980. Still, that side of town seemed worlds apart from IU until a grisly murder connected them in September 1986.

The victim was Ellen Marks, who had until recently been enrolled as a graduate student in the English department, and had been living in a lean-to made of packing crates on a vacant lot near Crestmont Public Housing, commonly known as Pigeon Hill.

Town Meets Gown

The murderer was quickly identified, but the mystery of Marks’ self-imposed exile from the ivory tower lingered on. An Associated Press story from 1986 quotes one of Marks’ neighbors. “She told us from time to time,” the neighbor said, “that she just wanted to get out and see how poor people survived and lived, and that’s what she did.”

Wolin’s engagement with Pigeon Hill emerged from a similar spirit. Although his training as a police photographer may have initially nudged Wolin toward the crime story, socio-economic issues of the day sustained his interest in the neighborhood.

This one guy—it’s a hot summer day—he’s got his shirt off, he’s got a lot of tattoos, he’s drinking a fifth of Jack Daniels, right out of the bottle. A kid near him is skinning a raccoon.

“There was a lot of discussion of welfare at the time, and there was the crack epidemic,” Wolin remembers.  “There were a lot of issues being played out in the press and in our culture at large about poverty, class, and crime.”

Wolin’s interest in poverty wasn’t just academic. His grandparents immigrated to New York from Eastern Europe and raised Wolin’s father in a tenement on the Lower East Side. Nonetheless, on Wolin’s first day shooting on “the hill”, he didn’t exactly feel like an insider.  “I was a bit nervous,” he admits. “I was leery about going there, because I thought that harm would befall me, so I took one of my students who was six-three, two hundred fifty pounds.”

First Impressions

The street life did seem pretty outlandish that first day, as Wolin recalls, “This one guy—it’s a hot summer day—he’s got his shirt off, he’s got a lot of tattoos, he’s drinking a fifth of Jack Daniels, right out of the bottle. A kid near him is skinning a raccoon.”

But the apprehension wasn’t limited to the photographer’s side. One of his first subjects was nonplussed when Wolin asked to take her picture on 12th Street.  “My first impression was, who is this strange guy,” laughs Wendi Pemberton, “and why does he want to take my picture.”

Everything was a fight. Everything was a struggle.  There was always somebody wanting to beat you up for something. You had to learn how to survive.

Pemberton looks calm, cool, and tough in her Metallica t-shirt and rock-star hair in the portrait Wolin made of her a couple of years after that first encounter. She’d come to trust Wolin by then, a process that started the second time she ran into him. “A week or two later,” she notes, “he came back up there and was walking around, and actually had the prints, and he would give you the picture of yourself, which I thought was really cool because for a lot of us up there our families didn’t have cameras and weren’t able to keep track of our different milestones in life.”

Picture Man

“There I was, this IU professor with a camera,” Wolin recalls.  “And as I would bring back pictures each week, I became known as ‘picture man’. The guy who did the pictures of everybody, of babies just born, high school graduations,  proms, weddings. Whatever the event was,  I was there to photograph.”

It was Wolin’s way of paying back his subjects for opening up their lives and their stories to him. He writes parts of those stories, in the subject’s words, right on the pictures. The words besides Wendi’s 15-year-old portrait suggest a rough childhood.

“Everything was a fight,” she adds.  “Everything was a struggle.  There was always somebody wanting to beat you up for something. You had to learn how to survive.”

To make matters worse, Pemberton’s mother succumbed to addiction.  Working as a  nurse at Bloomington Hospital, she developed a pill problem and “went off the deep end” when Pemberton was nine, abandoning her husband and children.  She didn’t return for nine years.

By then, Pemberton was bound for greener pastures.

The Far Side Of The Hill

“I had to leave, no matter what it took,” she promised herself. “I had to get out of there.”

I had to leave, no matter what it took. I had to get out of there.

Pemberton’s father had bought some land in the country and eventually built a house for the family. Pemberton graduated from high school and kept working, as she had since her first job cleaning houses at age 11. By 1991, Wolin had been photographing up on the hill for four years, when local press about his recently awarded Guggenheim fellowship prompted misunderstanding and suspicion on the part of two of his former subjects, one of whom threatened to sue him for a portion of the grant funds.

Even though most of his subjects supported him, Wolin asserts, “I became an issue.  I felt uncomfortable. I like to be more  invisible, you know, just ‘picture man’.”

So, “after some soul searching”, “picture man” came down from the hill and trained his eye on different subject matter.   For the next two decades, Wolin pursued photographic portraiture, with a storytelling component, focusing on other communities that had endured suffering—Holocaust survivors, and Vietnam War vets from all sides of the conflict. But in 2010, it was another murder that brought Wolin back to the hill.

Bookended By Murder

“On the front page of the local newspaper,” he recalls, “there was the picture of a woman who’d been murdered.  I recognized her face immediately as one of the children that I’d photographed.”

Crystal Grubbs’ sad fate got Wolin wondering what happened to all the other people whose pictures he’d taken, whom he’d gotten close to. When making inquiries through the Crestmont Housing Authority proved unfruitful, Wolin volunteered to teach a summer photography class at the neighborhood Boys and Girls Club.

On the front page of the local newspaper, there was the picture of a woman who’d been murdered.  I recognized her face immediately as one of the children that I’d photographed.

After every class Wolin would stand out on the sidewalk with a box of prints and ask every passerby whether she recognized any of his subjects. “Finally a woman said, ‘I know this woman here and I can take you to her.’  She drove me over to a house where  I came face to face with one of the girls I’d photographed twenty years ago. And that was such a rush.”

Word got around, and Wolin was able to reconnect with many of his original subjects.  “I’ve now remet and rephotographed over 100 people from 25 years ago,” he notes. “I’m ‘picture man’ again.”

For a long time, though, one of Wolin’s former subjects eluded him.  There was no trace of Wendi Pemberton.

“No,” she concurs. ” Because once I left I cut all ties. I felt I had to.”

Then And Now

In the intervening decades, Pemberton worked hard, often doing traditionally male jobs. She worked her way up from the trenches–literally–to her current position as a water quality engineer at the Indiana American Water Plant in Terre Haute.

She also got married, and had a child, who’s fifteen now.  Pemberton was able to provide her daughter with an upbringing that has been “absolutely the opposite of what I grew up with.”

Pemberton shares some of the details about her current life in the lines written on the portrait Wolin took of her after they finally reconnected on Facebook. In the picture, she’s emerging from the hot rod she’s just raced at the dragstrip—which she describes as her one indulgence. She looks cool and confident.

A Foreign Country In Your Hometown

Pigeon Hill Then and Now opened at a gallery in Lyon, France in late 2013. Wolin says French audiences were curious for a glimpse of what life in the US really looks like, off-screen.  “They think everybody is Brad Pitt.  There’s a Hollywoodization of America.”

But Pemberton asserts that you don’t have to be French to be unaware of the reality of lower class life in the US. She tells the story of being locked out of a friend’s apartment, and using her street smarts to break in. The friend was so impressed, that “she calls her friend at 2 o’clock in the morning who rushes over to meet us. And she doesn’t understand how we would even think to do that.  So my sister explained, ‘We’re from the ghetto, it’s how we do things,” and she asked, ‘There are ghettoes in Indiana?!’”

What Pemberton calls Bloomington’s ghetto is less than two miles away from Indiana University, but as a child, she remembers thinking about it as Oz.  “IU was a dream that was never even feasible for us,” she recalls.  “It was too far out of grasp.”

After graduating from high school, Pemberton’s daughter is hoping to enroll at IU.

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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  • Berin Greenbear

    I heard the name “Wendi Pemberton” on the radio this morning on my drive into work. That sparked a memory of Bradford Woods, in 1986, and a classmate that was in a neighboring cabin. This memory also took me back to Dyer Elementary (now called Tri-North Middle School) and the 20 minute bus ride to school from my home, straight up Pigeon Hill, past the Crestmont project.

    Seeing the photo this morning, the young woman is older than the eleven year old girl I remember, but it was definitely her. Middle and High School sent me onto a path that lead me directly to IU, a degree, and a profession. It’s nice to hear that at least one of my old classmates, whom I know had a much more difficult time than I, made a life for herself that she is happy with.

  • Marty Shipley

    I lived up there until I graduated from Bloomington North in 1983 and Survival that Wendi spoke of even then was your daily life, If you were out sometimes late at night you took the chance of getting beat up, I went to school with most of her family, we had our share of good times,if I had to go on a percentage I would say better than 80% of my time up there I’d like to forget, but you can’t erase your memories.

  • Jason Hillenburg

    Marty, come on – it wasn’t nearly that rough and tumble. There were some guys who had reputations, but that was about the extent of it. This sort of thing reminds me of some old codger talking about walking ten miles to school in the snow. Memory is a funny thing.

  • lynn.kirby-veasey

    I grew up in Bloomington about a mile or two from Pigeon Hill. (Fairview Street) Had family that lived there. Went to school at Dyer, at that time it was the high school. (1970) . See a comment from Jason Hillenburg. I went to school with Hillenburgs. Always wondered what to happened to them. Lived close to us. Happy to live in Myrtle Beach now. Visit Bloomington once a year for a family re-union or if family passes more often. Back home in Indiana. Good memories.

  • Ronald English

    I grew up on the Hill. It was a great learning experience for me, moving from Mitchell and Bedford IN., to Bloomington. I will never forget my friends and people I met there. After High School I went in to the Marine Corps. There definitely were some tough kids living there. Had a great time. I saw some knock down drag out fights, and some not so long and drug out. I lived next door to Wendi and her family, Good Peeps! I know Marty also.

  • My Two Cents

    This story is a little overstated, as far as the ‘ghetto’ description is concerned. I did not grow up on the ‘Hill’ but, as a young adult, I lived at Monroe and 11th in the 80s (including 1986), and was happy living there. I worked for the Bloomington Housing Authority, in the middle of the so-called projects. My next door neighbor was an elderly woman who baked for me all of the time, because she missed her children. The family across the street had sons that mowed my lawn. It was a typical, albeit lower income, community. All of the residents in the area were SHOCKED when the Ellen Marks killing occurred, not only because of familiarity with the victim and familiarity with the murderer (who worked at the local Village Pantry), but because it happened in ‘our neighborhood’. This area is not like the ‘projects’ one sees on TV. I’m sure there are many sad stories that have come out of Pigeon Hill, but to use words like ‘ghetto’ and ‘housing projects’ is a little misleading.

  • Wendi Pemberton

    Your welcomed to ad your Two cents , but you didn’t live there and so you don’t know what it was like growing up there. I wouldn’t change growing up there. I had the best friends and neighbors. We never locked our doors and left our windows opened all night. But it didn’t change what my plight was like. Like a man they called Feathers that exposed himself to young girls or a 26 year old man that tried to rape me @ age 15 that I stabbed in the neck with a pencil. If you didn’t live there you can’t know.

  • Wendi Pemberton

    Love all you guys . You were all my big brothers. Just wished you would have had a little sister for me to play with lol

  • Wendi Pemberton

    Thank you for the great words. I loved Bradford Woods. That was one of the best weeks I had in grade school.

  • Wendi Pemberton

    And the killer worked at 7-11

  • Jennifer Morrow

    Omg I cried

  • jennifer morrow

    sis how can I contact him

  • jennifer morrow

    missed u all

  • jennifer morrow

    its true everything I kno.

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