Elam: One Canton, 3 Steps—4I3
“My friend, now is the time to turn your life around.” That is the message discovered in Elam’s diagonal roads if the street map is read from left to right, up to down. It also embodies the purpose of Albeit’s most controversial Canton: to help the sick, poor and oppressed turn a new leaf and get back on track. Hidden behind those inspirational streets is a tangled web of idealism, tax dollars and turbulence.
When Albeit’s cantons were being planned out, Tsuhaka Kono, a Vietnamese-Hawaiian urban planner famous for his revitalized urban districts, had an unconventional idea. He petitioned the Albeit Planning Board to let Elam be an “Oasis for the Oppressed,” with housing and services catered to low-income residents. The idea seemed innocent enough at the time, and—by a one vote margin—Kono got the go-ahead to turn the square nautical mile into one of the biggest housing projects on Earth.
That was when things started to get touchy. Neighboring residents in Unterwalden and Spengler feared for their personal safety. Taxpayers citywide complained about the 12.5% “Social Justice Fee,” which doubled the sales tax and threatened to throw a wrench into the economy’s gears. The loudest criticism of all was directed at the supposedly Leftist policies that Elam embraced, including common ownership of all donated goods and rent-free housing. By the mid-1980s, most of the 40,000 or so residents of Elam had packed their bags in preparation for a seemingly imminent eviction.
That was when Samuel Elam (formerly Milton) stepped onto the political soapbox. Speaking before the city council, he made a speech that now sits, gold-engraved, at the very center of Elam. His talking points included the drops in crime and poverty that Elam accounted for, the comprehensive anti-homelessness policies of its workers and the abundant opportunities for community service. For the second time in history, the Canton was kept alive by one vote. As of 2010, it serves some 50,000 citizens with the same commitment it displayed two decades ago.
The concept of Elam is nothing complicated. Within the Canton’s borders lie three separate districts: Step 1, Step 2 and Step 3. Step 1 residents usually include the homeless and the chronically sick, who receive free housing, healthcare and food with no strings attached. Those willing to take one step closer to normal living may advance to Step 2, where free job seminars and education are combined with fixed-rate housing at astronomically low rates. The final piece of the program is Step 3, where residents pay for everything within their means and actively seek out a traditional Albeit residence.
And yet, Elam tends to escape definition as a “Welfare City.” 90 percent of residents were actively involved in a full-time job as of 2008; of those, 20 percent worked outside the Canton. The other 70 percent worked on-site in construction, maintenance, housekeeping or other service programs. Though the area is taxpayer funded, Albeit’s reliance on Elam residence to oversee Elam projects helps keep the tax burden quite low. Most out-of-Canton money goes towards education and public safety.
Perhaps the primary reason for its avoiding the term, though, is its architecture. Kono was adamant that the buildings in Elam be of stone construction with wooden interiors. The result: a square mile of buildings that look and feel like a college campus or a private estate. Said one Step 2 member in 1993: “It’s a place for the homeless, I know. It just doesn’t look like a place for the homeless.” Studies have shown that Elam’s vivid architecture has contributed greatly to its low crime rate and the success of its welfare efforts.
Nor is the area populated only by members of the “Step Program.” About 10,000 citizens live on cross streets that run in between the three districts, giving the area greater demographic diversity. These so-called Step 4 residents have more than a few attractions to visit—namely, the Albeit proving grounds and the rolling hills of Elam park—but amenities remain scarce.
Elam still has its opponents, especially those disgruntled with the amount of money they pay to keep the “Commie Canton” up and running. Nevertheless, most of Albeit’s residents take pride in supporting one of the only city-wide welfare projects in the world, a Canton that gives everyone and anyone the chance to turn their lives around. As Samuel Elam said, “In most cities, the poor live off the streets. Here, the poor live off one another.”