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Inside a repurposed jukebox at The Foundry in Cambridge, stories told by locals are waiting to be played

With the push of a few buttons, dozens of stories as remembered by real Cantabrigians can be shared on the spot.

The Foundry is home to an old-fashioned jukebox designed by Elisa Hamilton that does’t play music, but stories shared by people with ties to Cambridge.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Jukeboxes were once a staple at area pubs, bowling alleys, and pool halls — musical devices that let customers pick from a menu of tunes to play on the spot during a night out.

Most of them are long gone.

So at first glance the spiffy, freshly painted jukebox that now sits inside The Foundry, the nonprofit community space that opened last year in Kendall Square, might look a bit like a blast from the past.

And it is — but there’s more to it than you might expect.

At the Foundry Jukebox, a permanent public art installation inside the building, visitors can press a few buttons to pick from a selection not of hit songs but of stories about life in Cambridge as told by Cantabrigians.

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“Collectively, these all paint a portrait of Cambridge,” said Elisa Hamilton, the artist who built it. “They stand individually, and then together they stand as this powerful collective experience.”

For now, 25 stories have been loaded into the machine, which is funded by a city program that pays for art to be displayed in municipal buildings. Each unique tale can be called up by pressing a different letter and number combination. (For those who can’t visit in person, they can also be streamed online.)

The jukebox itself is the real deal: To bring the project to life, Hamilton tracked down the shell of an authentic 1960 Seeburg Select-O-Matic from a dealer in Lowell in 2019.

She made some adjustments, filled its interior with modern electronics, and gave it a hand-stenciled paint job. Where there was once a visible mechanism for swapping out records behind the vintage glass, she built three spinning, abstract wooden sculptures to “scratch that analog itch.”

The most time-consuming — and, for Hamilton, most precious — part of the project happened behind the scenes, when she spent four years interviewing and recording the first batch of storytellers, who she calls “storysharers.”

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For some of the stories, she had help from the Cambridge Black History Project, which is recording oral histories with Black Cantabrigians at the Cambridge Public Library.

Hamilton taped the others herself on a handheld condenser microphone, which she set up in living rooms, on patios, and out on the streets so she could capture the natural sounds of the city in the background.

The Foundry Jukebox, which is filled with true stories told by Cambridge residents, is designed with all of the old-fashioned elements in mind, including the stories printed on a menu like songs.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Just like in an old-fashioned jukebox, the art installation at The Foundry has lettered and numbered buttons that are used to queue up stories as if they were songs.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

In one interview, about the founding of the Lynch Family Skatepark, Hamilton recorded the story at the location itself, so skateboards clattering against the cement can be heard.

In another, a man sitting on his porch described what it was like to grow up in Inman Square as the sounds of summertime in the city provided the ambiance.

“I record wherever it’s comfortable for folks to record, because it’s incredibly generous and brave and vulnerable to share a story, and I want folks to be as comfortable as possible,” Hamilton said.

While each story has been condensed to roughly eight minutes, Hamilton often sits with each subject for much longer, as they share cheery yarns about favorite teachers and supportive neighbors, or painful memories of discrimination, poverty, and being displaced.

Storing those powerful and heartwarming tales in a prominent place inside the community center felt like an appropriate way to give them recognition, Hamilton said.

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“It’s about letting people know that you really value their contributions,” she said. “That is something I worked really hard to do, to let folks know that this is really special.”

The jukebox can be found near the building’s main entrance, in a room that architects designed specifically for it. Two built-in couches run along the walls, so people can select a story and then sit down and listen.

To add to the retro feel of the space, Hamilton also had a graphic designer make mock-up album covers for each of the stories, complete with a photo of the storyteller. When stories play, an image of each person also pops up on a nearby video screen, along with captions, so hearing-impaired viewers can follow along.

People seem to be drawn to the space, which has become a focal point of the building, said Diana Navarrete-Rackauckas, The Foundry’s executive director.

“Folks get lost in there,” Navarrete-Rackauckas said. “People will spend 20, 30 minutes just sitting and listening.”

The jukebox is still a work in progress. So far, 50 people have been interviewed for the project, with only half featured there now. Hamilton wants to get to 100 — enough that all of the machine’s letter and number combinations are filled — by the end of the year.

To do that, she’s inviting anyone who lives or works in Cambridge — or once did — and has a story to tell to reach out through the project’s website. Special consideration will be given to “stories and voices that are underrepresented and/or often go unheard,” according to project details.

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She also spread the word about the jukebox at a panel discussion at The Foundry on Thursday called “Beyond Polarization: How Stories Can Save Community.”

Hamilton doesn’t intend for the jukebox to play the same stories forever and designed it so that new stories can be swapped in by simply loading files onto a flash drive and plugging it in. That way, once it’s full, the jukebox can be a vessel for Cambridge voices for years to come.

“There are just so many stories in Cambridge that we haven’t heard,” she said.

Elisa Hamilton sits on a couch in The Foundry Jukebox in Cambridge, where visitors can listen to stories about the city as told by residents. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff



Spencer Buell can be reached at spencer.buell@globe.com. Follow him @SpencerBuell.