Perspectives: Save Our Spaces

The closure of Brillobox seemed to hit hard.


Local bars and restaurants continue to shut down — or, more accurately, announce that they will never be able to return — as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each has been accompanied by fond remembrances on social media from devotees. Even in the case of places that may not inspire much passion, it’s still a shame. Given the innumerable challenges of running an establishment during the best of times, a shuttering due to a virus seems like a cruel twist of fate.

With Brillobox, though, it seemed to me that many people were experiencing the loss more profoundly. The Bloomfield bar wasn’t the longest-tenured in the city; it opened in 2005. Fifteen years is a long time in the development of a city’s bar scene, however, and Brillobox predated many of the hipster havens that were developed in its image throughout Lawrenceville and East Liberty.

More importantly, it gained a reputation for entertainment and programming that was a little bit different. This was a venue that would open its arms for bold concepts, the kind that may or may not work —  to performers and creators who had not yet established themselves enough to make their way to other stages. For a good long while, if you didn’t know where to go with an idea, an act or a show, you went to Brillobox.

I should know: It’s where I first figured out how to do stand-up. (Or, given the famously steep learning curve in comedy, figured out how not to do stand-up.)

Brillobox got in on trends early and remained open and accessible to the people who embraced it. Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, it would have continued serving that niche. That’s the disappointing part of closures like this: They didn’t have to happen.

At the broadest level, the blame rests on the virus. And, without a doubt, a more robust and comprehensive federal response to current economic conditions would’ve prevented many of these outcomes; more government intervention to keep business and (more importantly) individuals afloat remains necessary and almost entirely absent.

But, when our favorite spots close, let’s not let this fact get lost in our grief: This is also on us.

As everyone who hasn’t inserted their head clavicle-deep in the conspiratorial sand now understands, the more we push it, the longer the virus is going to last. The more we try to return to our normal patterns, throw caution to the wind for unnecessary trips and roll the dice on in-person gatherings, the longer this thing is going to go.

Admittedly, five full months into a fundamentally changed world, we all need to find a release valve and relax in one area or another. Maybe that involves the occasional outdoor gathering with friends and family; maybe it’s a periodic masked outing or activity, reclaiming a bit of a lost pastime. Fine. But if we fail to limit those choices — if we turn one or two risky choices a month into one or two a week, or one or two a day — more people will be infected and the virus will continue on its current trajectory. The next normal, whatever that looks like, will get farther and farther away.

And, yes, more places like the Brillobox will close.

It’s not entirely riding on our individual choices. But we have the ability to limit the impact; a recent New Yorker column explained how the people of Vermont have kept their numbers much lower than other states simply because they have tended to be more cautious. We need federal help, and we can be hopeful for an effective vaccine. But we can also help save the businesses around us by doing all we can to limit the spread.

Put simply: The more you stay home now, the more likely it is that your favorite bar will be there next year.

We’re going to lose more places like the Brillobox. Each will be a blow to the people that work there, the people that built it and the people who love it. The best thing we can do to help is to try to lower the rate of infection — and the best way we know how to do that is to keep our distance from one another.

That’s a choice that won’t just save bars and restaurants.

It will also save lives.

Sean Collier is a contributing editor for Pittsburgh Magazine.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly