On Palermo tragedy, 'Agony in the Garden' and the Next Baltimore

Hundreds of cyclists ride on on University Parkway on a memorial ride for cyclist Tom Palermo.

There are three narratives from the death of Tom Palermo, bicyclist and builder of bikes: The outpouring of support for the man's family; the unusual efforts of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland to tell us about the involvement of its second-ranking bishop in the collision that caused Palermo's death; and the emergence of the bicycling movement as a power in shaping the Next Baltimore.

First, about the children: As of Wednesday afternoon, the online fundraising effort to benefit Palermo's 6-year-old daughter Sadie and 4-year-old son Sam had reached $67,695, according to The original fundraising goal was $10,000, but it has been raised at least twice within the last week. The donations go to an educational trust fund for the children.


People die every day — every minute of every day — from all kinds of causes. But Palermo's death stood out because it occurred in a relatively peaceful and affluent stretch of the city on the Saturday after Christmas, because he was only 41, because he was the father of small children, because he loved bicycles, and because he was riding one when he was killed. There was a strong reaction to Palermo's death even before we learned the identity of the driver of the car involved in the collision.

In an unusually candid series of public statements, the Episcopal Diocese not only identified the driver of the car as Bishop Suffragan Heather Elizabeth Cook, but provided details not even the police have revealed to the news media.


Tuesday, the diocese released a timeline of Cook's behavior and statements after the collision. This followed a series of announcements about the church's prayers for the Palermo family and about a meeting at a conference center in Frederick County, where more than 100 clergy gathered to express "despair, frustration, anger" over the tragedy. Some who attended that meeting also questioned how Cook, who pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol in Caroline County in 2010, could have been elected bishop suffragan last May.

"All candidates have warts," Bishop Eugene Sutton, the head of the diocese, told a Baltimore Sun reporter. "Everybody deserves a second chance. When the church ceases to give second chances, when the church ceases to show compassion, we cease to be the church."

All of this public "Agony in the Garden" has occurred under Sutton's leadership.

I emphasize it because it's highly unusual for any organization, secular or nonsecular, to release information about officials or employees who might face criminal charges. The diocese has been way ahead of law enforcement in telling the story of Palermo's death. You can take a dark or skeptical view of it, but this kind of transparency is rare.

More than others, religious leaders might feel particularly compelled to open up about the involvement of one of their own in a tragedy such as this. But public confession and contrition are hardly the hallmarks of large churches implicated in scandal and crime. In fact, coverup and silence are usually the rule.

We have seen something quite different from Sutton in this episode involving Cook, including savvy awareness that it's nearly impossible to keep secrets anymore, especially in Smalltimore.

And that gets me to the third narrative from Palermo's death.

Bicycling in Baltimore is not new, but it is certainly becoming more common. The numbers of riders are growing. The government has master plans for making the city more conducive to cycling for daily commutes and for pleasure. Bike enthusiasts have become increasingly political. There have been some wow-inducing gatherings in the city of riders, the young people who will shape the Next Baltimore.


Some might sneer at the term, but the Next Baltimore is already evolving, and it's not the figment of wishful thinking. It's real.

Young, college-educated professionals are moving into Baltimore and demanding that it be a better city. The Census tells us this is happening, but you can walk on any number of streets any time of day and see it, and not just in the usual places. These younger men and women come with a holistic aesthetic; they're into fitness and the active life, green living and progressive politics. They want to party, but they also realize Baltimore only gets better with a vigilant, informed and impatient citizenry.

Having a city that's bicycle-friendly, engineered to provide safe passage for bikers and pedestrians as well as drivers, is part of the package. It's what young, enviro-conscious people think about when they think of cool cities. And in the Next Baltimore that also means having a culture of innovation and creativity, a robust arts scene, plenty of locally sourced food, amenities within walking distance of your rowhouse or loft apartment, even a swimmable harbor. It means a generally healthier city, and a belief in the future.

I did not know him, but I bet Palermo, builder of bikes, knew what I'm talking about — the Next Baltimore that his children might call home. The tragedy is he did not live to see it.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.