Salem’s All-American Street Game


This cover greets players of Salem’s All-American Street Game, produced by a pair of Salem businessmen in 1984. Photo by Chris Hagan.

The game's typewritten directions. Photo by Chris Hagan.

Gameplay is controlled by moveable one-way arrows on the board. Photo by Chris Hagan.

Signature of John Baker, one of the game's creators, on the official directions. Photo by Chris Hagan.

The game money shows the slogan, "You can't get there from here!" Photo by Chris Hagan.

Writer Laura Gildart Sauter plays Salem's All-American Street Game. Photo by Chris Hagan.

Moving about the board takes a lot of coordination. Photo by Chris Hagan.

One of the better cards to pick up in the game. Photo by Chris Hagan.

Sauter (center) discusses strategy with Nicole McDavid (left) and Salem Is co-editor Sarah Evans. Photo by Chris Hagan.

Each errand card features a Salem business. Photo by Chris Hagan.

When I moved to Salem four years ago and began to find my way around, I realized it was taking me much longer than usual to create a “mind map” of my new home. Something definitely was odd.

Streets would suddenly split, or dead-end, or veer sharply to the right, shooting me off in a completely different direction from the way I was headed. “Noo,” I found myself moaning. “I don’t want to go this way!”

I mentioned the problem to my new friend and neighbor. She was sympathetic: “It’s so bad, someone made a board game of the Salem street system, years ago. It’s called ‘You Can’t Get There From Here.’ I have a copy somewhere.”

The game, printed in 1984, is actually titled “Salem’s All-American Street Game” (“You Can’t Get There From Here” is the subtitle). It was the brain child of two brash, young Salem businessmen — John Baker, an agent at Ned Baker Real Estate, and Jon Steinmetz, district manager of Bob’s Hamburgers — who wanted to make a point.

As the game’s introduction states, “Beginning in 1981 the City of Salem began closing streets, changing their direction, making them two-way for a few blocks, then one-way again. Anyway, they have made a mess.”

According to an Oregon Business article at the time, the city council had “changed the direction of the major downtown streets three times in as many years, stimulating verbal abuse from many residents.” Baker ended up testifying in front of the council about the deleterious effect of the street changes on local business.

“People quit going downtown to shop because it was too confusing,” he told me over the phone from his present home in Sunriver.

Baker came away frustrated at the city council’s lack of response. “When government agencies start changing things, they often don’t realize the impact their decisions have on people whose livelihoods are on the line,” Baker, now retired, told me. “I wanted to send a message in a fun, light-hearted way.”

One night, as he was falling asleep, the layout of the game came to him. He woke up enough to scribble down his ideas.

Later, he worked with his friend Steinmetz to complete the graphic design of the game, which was printed in Salem by Capitol Games, a company created to produce only this one game.

When government agencies start changing things, they often don’t realize the impact their decisions have on people whose livelihoods are on the line. I wanted to send a message in a fun, light-hearted way.

At the time, Baker told the Statesman Journal, “We want the game to be a positive for Salem, not a negative. … What is most important is to sell Salem. The big reward is the tremendous amount of laughter and discussion [the game generates].”

They produced more than 2,000 copies and sold them for between $13 and $15. Baker and Steinmetz gave about $1,000 to charity, cleared about $1,000 each, and presented the first game they produced to the Salem city council.

“Some of them thought it was pretty funny,” Baker said. “Others were not amused.”

The layout of the board shows an interlocking grid of eight one-way downtown streets, with squares for local businesses along the routes. The businesses depicted on the board are all real — each of them paid $50 for the privilege of being part of the game — but many are now defunct.

Ned Baker Real Estate is still going strong, but Bob’s Hamburgers, a Salem institution since 1955, closed the last of its restaurants in 2001. (I understand Bob’s secret sauce can still be purchased at Roth’s Market, however.)

The bungalow which once housed the popular Heritage Tree Restaurant was moved from Cottage Street to State Street in 2007; the restaurant closed, and the eponymous black walnut that had sat behind it was cut down. But you can still buy a dozen roses at Olsen Florist, wander the shops of the Reed Opera House or buy a bike at Scott’s Cycle.

As many as four can play the game. Each player is dealt several hundred dollars along with cards that determine the downtown errands to run; the first player to complete all errands wins the game. A roll of the dice determines the number of spaces to move.

As in Monopoly, players sometimes have to draw cards that can send them to jail, earn them unexpected money or charge them fines. Some of the cards evoke speculation about the events that may have inspired them: “Go to City Hall; complain to council; lose 1 turn,” or “Theater fundraising scheme; collect $20 from each player.”

The kicker, though, is that upon landing on one of the squares marked with an arrow, a player is required to reverse the direction of one of the one-way streets, leading to havoc and confusion, and making it nearly impossible to get any errands done. Often, a player’s best option is to go to jail, which sits, along with City Hall, in the middle of the board — once you pay your bail (or forfeit a turn if you’re broke), you can head out in any direction.

The directions are typewritten; the board is red, white and blue; and the design looks somewhat amateurish in this day of computer graphics and laser printing. But it has a charming old-timey air, and it is fun to play.

I’ve played “Salem’s All-American Street Game” twice now: once while sitting in a coffee shop with the friend who first told me about it, and once with my Salem Is editor and her friend. Strategy is key. Map out your errands; make a plan. Do you need to stop at a bank? What happens when you get to the spot where streets run into each other?

You can play viciously, reversing streets to thwart your opponents just as they turn the corner to complete an errand. More often, though, the frustration of not being able to get from here to there drove us to cooperate. In one game, two of us were stuck, unable to move either way, except by going to jail. I landed on an arrow, which was followed by general jubilation and me asking, “Which street should I change, ladies?”

Many an academic treatise has been written on the influence of physical environment on behavior. Were the city leaders smarter than we knew? Perhaps as they laid out the streets, they were deliberately trying to drive the citizens of Salem into unusual feats of cooperation and concern for their fellow citizens, postulating that we would react much like the way people behave in the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Hmmm. Probably not.

Laura Gildart Sauter writes a column on local farming for Salem Weekly and has had her short fiction and poetry published in obscure literary journals.


Win a Copy of “Salem’s All-American Street Game”

“Salem’s All-American Street Game” is no longer in print, but co-creator John Baker was kind enough to dig up an old copy for us — and we want to pass the riches on to you.

One lucky winner will receive a free copy of the game. To enter: Comment on this story with an answer to the question, “If you were to make a board game about Salem, what would you call it?”

Bonus entries: Earn one bonus entry each for

  • Sharing this story on Facebook, and then coming back to this page and adding a comment that says, “I shared this on Facebook.” (If you do not add the comment on this page, the entry will not count.)
  • Tweeting this story.

One winner will be chosen at random from all entries. Entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, June 9, or they will not count. We will announce the winner sometime later that week on this page and on our Facebook page.

And the winner is …

Jim Scheppke. Thanks to everyone who entered!