Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. An older couple shared a cigarette on their front porch and a boy walked his white schnauzer down the sidewalk. To the unfamiliar visitor, Park Lane is just another street in Aston, Pennsylvania.
The car stopped abruptly at a “single story” home with a ramshackle basketball net angled crookedly at the base of the front yard. After maneuvering between two landscaping trucks and a dumpster parked in the driveway, a backyard comes into view with a garage located at the epicenter like a kiosk in a shopping mall. A smattering of loose stone and a nonfunctioning golf cart partially block the path to the “half lifted” garage door. The backyard is no different than the neighboring homes. Not a larger space. Not greener grass. But to many teens in Aston, this backyard is a safe space from the perils of a difficult home life.
Welcome to B.J. Barlow’s House of Iron.
Within the confines of the garage door, magic happens. Dim, linear lights hang from an unfinished wooden ceiling that also holds a black punching bag and a thick climbing rope. Disconnected black mats lay on top of the cement foundation. A vacant bench press waits locked and loaded with forty-five pound plates perched on both ends of the bar. A squat rack, a leg press, and a dumbbell shelf, with weights numerically organized from ten up to ninety pounds, lie adjacent to the bench press.
Knick knacks, old radios, and a tool bench surround lifters. A red flag with a rat-dog staring back at you hangs from the back ceiling. Frequent visitors of the House of Iron turned this flag into a snapchat phenomena, posting a picture of the flag to their snapchat stories to invite others to lift at Barlow’s, causing teens to often flock in groups of three to four guys.
This weight room is by no means a pretty, organized place, but that is symbolic of the town’s “hard hat and lunch pail” ambiance — and its owner, B.J. Barlow.
Barlow, a laid back, strong statured, sanitation truck driver in his late thirties, originally did not plan to use the space as a weight room. In fact, Barlow says his motivation for building the garage was rooted in his experience as a teenager.“I felt like growing up, there was nowhere to go. Being a teenager especially, no one wants you around… Nobody.” To combat this, Barlow envisioned a game room where his kids and their friends could have a place to hang out.
The purpose of the space changed during the garage’s early stages once Barlow’s friend invited him to a gym equipment auction. Barlow asked him, “What the hell am I gonna do with all that [gym equipment]?” After reluctantly attending, Barlow laughs, “Well, I ended up spending upwards of 1200 dollars — I bought so much shit!”
The equipment sat in his unfinished garage for what Barlow recalls as three to six months until an unfortunate disaster struck a family member.
His cousin relapsed back into drug use.
After returning from rehab, his cousin needed a place to live and work. At this point, Barlow juggled a landscaping business and job with the township. The combination became too laborious to do alone, cutting roughly 50 yards per week, so he championed his cousin’s rehabilitation process, permitting him to quarter in his basement and cut lawns for his landscaping company.
His cousin turned to exercise as an escape from his unhealthy past, and one afternoon B.J. decided to join him. Two cousins in an unfinished garage weight room: a safe space for family to share healthy habits and support each other.
Over time, the amount of visitors grew in number, but the tradition has not changed.
“I was working for the township at the time,” B.J. recalled, “and there was a lot of kids, 17 or 18 years old, that were looking for a place to work out and they wanted to go to Planet Fitness or the YMCA. But all of this costs money. And most kids, especially in a ‘blue collar’ town don’t have money.”
He invited the teens he worked with to lift at his garage.
At first there was a key to the garage, but quickly an influx of visitors proved that the key was unnecessary. “There were kids from all over the place coming, and they always knew me. Actually, what’s funny is they didn’t all know me. But at least they knew someone lifting here that I could trust.”
Many people come to the gym in spurts, but it is a guarantee that the House of Iron will be full on every holiday, when every other gym locks their doors. “It’s cool. It’s fun. I love that people have somewhere to go [during the holidays].”
Most people would worry about insurance or visitors stealing property from the gym. It crosses Barlow’s mind from time to time, but the good always outweighs the bad.
“Look,” Barlow preaches, “you can always get a shitty person. That’s just the way it is. But at the same time I think this is such a great escape for a lot of these kids. Some of which have had bad deaths in the family, like a mom or dad, and this is a spot where I can give these kids some parental guidance without it feeling forced, like a step dad nobody likes or something like that.”
Aston resident Barry Boyle, who lifts at the gym on a daily basis, would agree, “Barlow is a guy that is selfless in his contribution to others’ well being. Whenever you’re having a problem with something, even outside of wrestling, he will always help you out. No matter big or small. Public or private.”
To some, giving back to the community is an effort that is seen as charitable. But for Barlow, it is simply his charismatic nature and ability to listen that lets kids confide in him for help.
“Some of these kids tell me more shit than I even want to know,” Barlow says. “Like I don’t know if I can help with this one, man. But hell, I’ll try.”
People often tell him what he is doing is special for the community, but he always responds with the same answer. “I don’t think I am doing anything special, I just think this is what everybody should do. If everybody was a decent person who helped out others when you can, you know, the world would be a much better place.”
Aston is full of people that want to give. Everyone knows each other, and that is something B.J. loves about living there. This has driven him to coach youth baseball and wrestling at nearby Sun Valley High School. “The kids here grow up in that ‘blue collar’ mentality. An attitude that never quits. We always say about kids in our town that they would run through a brick wall if us coaches asked them to.”
Barlow’s influence is not limited to the kids he coaches either.“The first time I met Barlow he made me laugh,” Aston resident Ed Penza said. “In fact, every time I see him he makes me laugh. Barlow is a great person who brings Aston together just by providing that place to meet others in the community while building healthy habits.”
Many sneakers have left their footprints on the garage since Barlow and his cousin in rehab lifted in silence. But the atmosphere of the room is still rooted in family and hard work… two qualities that are learned quickly in a town like Aston.
B.J. Barlow preaches community. And the House of Iron is his chapel.