Akasha Lawrence-Spence pays attention, whether she’s looking at the masonry of her Nob Hill apartment building, the brass door that previously served as the entrance for the downtown Meier & Frank building, or the large, east-facing windows that look out onto Northwest 19th. It’s from this last location, at a nearly century-old film distribution building on the outskirts of industrial Northwest Portland, that we discuss not just her aesthetic choices, but also the vision she has for spaces in Portland that would otherwise go unused outside of normal business hours.
Lawrence-Spence is the mind behind HYMN Space, a twice-weekly community gathering aimed at uniting entrepreneurs, artists, and community activists in a collaborative environment. Every Tuesday and Wednesday evening, rain or shine, she can be found at Commissary Café from 6 to 11 pm, either working independently, chatting with regulars and passersby, or hosting an event centered on community engagement.
An interior designer by day, Lawrence-Spence launched HYMN Space after noticing she was coming home from work stuck in the same intense mindset that kept her diligent and productive at the office. In the evenings, between tying up some of the day’s loose ends or developing a myriad of passion projects, she found it increasingly difficult to relax in her personal space—to the detriment of her sleep schedule, self-care, and personal relationships. “There’s something about crossing a threshold,” Lawrence-Spence says. “You walk into your home, and all of a sudden—if you’re lucky—you relax; a weight is lifted, you can shed your day. You are now in your zen space... I started turning my zen space into this really hectic workspace, and that was problematic for me.”
While the 28-year-old Brooklyn native is no stranger to the grind, she viewed this obstacle as an opportunity to help herself in her quest for a life-work balance, while also creating a network of likeminded professionals in the process. “I knew this couldn’t be just my problem,” she says. “And so when I started talking to other designers, they kept reiterating this same issue. Another group that faces the same problem is freelancers. They tend to be a very isolated population with very little work-life separation.”
After doing ample research on the physical and psychological effects of working from home, Lawrence-Spence drafted a business plan and pitched the concept of HYMN Space to various Portland cafés, shops, and other spaces predominantly open for daytime use. Her goal was to establish a consistent meeting space where locals could come to work on projects both professional and personal, bounce ideas off each other, or simply socialize in the middle of the traditional workweek. She aimed to mitigate the pressure of a bar or restaurant atmosphere, where your presence is welcome only if you’re spending money and the environment isn’t always conducive to productivity.
While several businesses rejected her idea (mostly due to legal issues and financial constraints), Lawrence-Spence found an ally in Kim Wilson, the owner of Commissary. “[Kim] was all ears and excited about the concept,” she says. “That was amazing because she is a woman business owner and was well acquainted with the trials of starting something new relating to the need for support to get your ideas off the ground. She’s been very helpful and insightful.” Wilson agreed to open Commissary as a location for HYMN Space, and since then, Lawrence-Spence has established the organization as an LLC, making it solely responsible for paying rental and labor costs after-hours.
In a city where commercial development is rampant and unique aspects of the local culture seem to be priced out right and left, Lawrence-Spence envisions a network of meeting spaces that joins Portland’s creative style with its creative inhabitants in locations that already exist and emanate local history. Her ultimate goal is to create a variety of HYMN Spaces, so that members have the opportunity to work and collaborate in any number of locations, no matter where they might find themselves on any given weeknight. That’ll take time, dedication, and financial investment on Lawrence-Spence’s part, but she’s fully committed to making her dream a reality. “If I’m not doing this full-time in five years,” she tells me, “then I have done something wrong.”
It certainly helps her cause that Lawrence-Spence is a magnetic force. She’s stylish, witty, confident, and never fails to pull together an outfit that looks elegant and expensive from thrifted finds and repurposed materials. She wears big gold-framed glasses reminiscent of Iris Apfel and dons a different hairstyle almost every time I see her. She speaks with authority on a variety of subjects and tends to find human connection in unexpected places. As an undergraduate, she studied political science and anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia. And in 2013, she moved west and earned a BFA in Interior Design at the Art Institute of Portland.
As a woman of color and an East Coast transplant, Lawrence-Spence brings a revitalized perspective to Portland, challenging HYMN Space attendees to step outside their comfort zones and make new connections beyond their insular communities. Conversations at HYMN Space oscillate between how to work less and live more, where to get the best ramen in town, and achieving intersectionality under the Trump administration. Lawrence-Spence proudly asserts that “everyone who comes [to HYMN Space] is hungry,” and she has no problem providing food for thought.
There is often structure within HYMN Space as well, as several events have been organized by regulars and Lawrence-Spence herself, fulfilling a need for community engagement. In February, designer Tina Snow Le hosted a conversation about “the art of the side hustle,” and in March, Erin Aquarian gave a community tarot reading during which every attendee participated and shared personal anecdotes. HYMN Space has been home to a fundraiser for the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization and recently began a book club that will meet on a monthly schedule. Lawrence-Spence enthusiastically welcomes member-sponsored events and thrives to give autonomy to individuals who approach her with event ideas and community incentives.
Having lived in Portland for nearly a decade, I find it difficult to remember a time when I felt like I really lived in a neighborhood, a nexus of space that is both personal and communal—you know, the kind of place where everybody knows your name. That lack of feeling is compounded by the orange cones, the red tape, the monoliths being built at every turn. But HYMN Space is an antidote to that kind of isolation; it’s an opportunity to see beyond a conventional view of the city. Amid the scaffolding and the steel frames, something else is being built from square one, and its only requirement is showing up.
HYMN Space happens every Tuesday and Wednesday at Commissary Cafe (915 NW 19th). An entry fee of $5-10 covers the cost of refreshments and goes towards rent and labor expenses. More info can be found at hymnspace.com or on Facebook and Instagram @hymnspace.