Editorials of The Times

Posted December 24, 2017 9:05 p.m. EST

Santa’s Manhattan Homes

Santa Claus has a home in New York, in a colonnaded building across from Pennsylvania Station that is the city’s main post office. It must be his home, because that’s where letters addressed to him wind up. The letters come from all over, tens of thousands of them each year, sent by the needy and the hopeful, the luckless and the guileless. Every Christmas season, kindhearted New Yorkers enlist as surrogate Santas. They go to the post office and sift through the mail in search of people to help.

Santa has another home of sorts in New York, in a brick building on the Upper West Side that houses a small school with about 110 students in pre-high school grades. The Studio School, as it is called, has an official address of 117 W. 95th St., but its building also encompasses No. 115. Long ago, No. 115 was home to Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a Police Department surgeon and deputy coroner.

O’Hanlon had an 8-year-old daughter who, troubled by the skepticism of her “little friends,” asked about Santa’s existence. He suggested that she put the question in a letter to The New York Sun, a popular daily in its time. You’ve no doubt figured out where this is going. On Sept. 21, 1897, in what is surely the most oft-quoted (and oft-parodied) line from an American newspaper editorial, The Sun wrote, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

“He exists,” the editorial continued, “as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.”

The florid prose was the work of Francis Pharcellus Church, described in some accounts as having in general been quite the curmudgeon (a not unfamiliar type in editorial-writing circles). But with this essay of 415 words or so, he went into sentimental overdrive, and entered American lore.

In 2011 the website of Smithsonian magazine ranked it No. 1 on a list of “top 10 unforgettable editorials.” (No. 2, for the curious, was an 1845 article in The New York Morning News that firmly planted the phrase “manifest destiny” in the national consciousness.) T.A. Frail, who compiled the Smithsonian list, called the Church editorial “a masterpiece of decisiveness” — the Yes, Virginia section — but also of “evasion” — the part about Santa existing as certainly as love et al. exist.

The head of the Studio School, Janet Rotter, said Virginia was “part of our school spirit." Indeed, Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas, her name upon marriage, might well have felt at home there, having been a teacher and principal in the New York public school system for 47 years. She died at age 81 in 1971, the same year that the Studio School was founded.

The school established a scholarship in her name. Just before students left last week on their Christmas break, Virginia’s question and Church’s reply were read aloud to them. A plaque in her memory on an outside wall draws visitors curious to know more about her, Rotter said.

A few years ago, students were asked how they would have responded to that inquiring 8-year-old girl. Their thoughts, in essays, showed an appreciation for life’s imponderables. “If you only believe what you see,” a 13-year-old girl wrote, “then you are missing a whole world out there full of wonderful mystical mysteries.” Another girl, also 13, wrote: “We must trust what we cannot see and put our faith in the unknown. If we abandon what is unknown to our senses, how can we truly know anything?"

“They don’t take it so literally,” Rotter said of how her students interpret the Santa Claus editorial. “They have a deep respect for the ideal.”

What “Yes, Virginia” reflects for them is a human longing for something loftier than what Church described 120 years ago as “the skepticism of a skeptical age.” Skepticism unquestionably endures. So does that yearning.

Derailed Infrastructure

The Amtrak derailment near Tacoma, Washington, that killed three people last week may well have been partly the individual failure of an engineer who was going much too fast. It was also, however, yet another demonstration of this country’s collective, continuing failure to invest in infrastructure.

Though their inquiries are not complete, investigators have determined that the train, which was going from Seattle to Portland, Oregon, was traveling at 78 mph as it approached a turn that has a 30-mph speed limit. The circumstances are eerily similar to a 2015 Amtrak crash near Philadelphia in which eight people were killed when a train derailed as it sped through a sharp curve.

In both cases, the trains were operating without the benefit of a system known as positive train control, which can automatically slow down or stop a train when human operators fail to do so. This technology is not some hot new thing. The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending it for nearly half a century. For various reasons — including bureaucratic inertia and penny-pinching — many railroads still don’t have functioning systems in place.

In 2008, after a rail accident in California killed 25 people, Congress required all railroads to install positive train control by the end of 2015. But after many railroads complained that they were not close to completing the task, lawmakers in late 2015 gave them another three years to comply. They also allowed the Department of Transportation to grant extensions of an additional two years on a case-by-case basis if railroads achieved certain milestones.

While some railroads like Metrolink in Southern California now use the technology, many railroads, including New Jersey Transit, have made far too little progress, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The industry, which includes many private freight railroads, clearly deserves much of the blame for dragging its feet. But so do federal and state governments, which have not only failed to push the industry harder but have never appropriated enough money to allow public transit agencies to upgrade their systems or held railroad officials accountable for delays. Amtrak says most of its Northeast Corridor has a functioning positive train control system, but that is not true across its national network, which includes track and equipment that is owned and has to be updated by other companies and agencies.

The halting progress is emblematic of the country’s larger transportation problems — its potholed roads, dysfunctional subways, dilapidated bridges and shabby airports. Some had hoped this would change under President Donald Trump, who promised during the election to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure. Last week, he wrote on Twitter that the Amtrak derailment “shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly.”

It is hard to take this declaration seriously, though, given his administration’s lack of effort. The White House raised hopes when it held an “infrastructure week” in early June. It’s understandable if you don’t recall anything about that week; it was all smoke and mirrors. The one document from which we might actually learn something about the administration’s intentions — the 2018 budget — proposes a long list of cuts. Grants to Amtrak would be slashed by $630 million, or 45 percent; the Capital Investment Grants program, which supports rail and transit projects around the country, would lose $928 million, or 43 percent; a popular $500 million transportation program known as Tiger, which invests in road, rail, transit and port projects, would be eliminated.

According to some recent press reports, the administration is now developing a plan that would shift much of the burden of new spending on infrastructure to state and local governments and the private sector. This will not work. The recently passed Republican tax bill will make it very difficult for state and local governments to raise new money because its citizens will no longer be able to deduct state and local taxes from their federal income taxes. And while private investors would be interested in revenue-generating projects like toll roads, they are unlikely to fund safety improvements like positive train control.

If Trump were serious, he would get Congress to increase direct federal spending on infrastructure and pay for it by repealing some of the giant tax cuts it just handed to corporations and wealthy families. That’s a pipe dream, of course. Just like Trump’s promises to rebuild America.

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