from 11211 Magazine – October 1, 2004
Suzy Kline has never been
in the military but
BY SHELLEY PRESTON
Suzy Kline has never been in the military but beneath a white blouse appropriate for the owner of her own real estate business she wears a dog tag. Dog Tags were issued to her and her fellow classmates in the eighth grade to acknowledge that atomic bombs were being tested 75 miles away from their Las Vegas school. She used to sit on her front steps to watch the mushroom shaped clouds laced with uranium incinerate the Nevada sky. Kline has worn the tags ever since.
“I figure that if a disaster occurs, at least they will know my blood type,” she jokes.
Now 40 years later, the tag is a symbol of survival. Kline has spent a lifetime waging battles in the name of autonomy. She chose to remain single and pursue life on her own while many women of her generation felt uncomfortable setting aside husband and kids to follow their independence. As the first women to sell industrial real estate in Brooklyn and Queens, and after a stint as a locksmith, she has fought to prove that she can do a man’s job in a man’s world, while retaining every bit of her femininity.
Kline can now claim victory, for she is exactly where she wants to be. She has owned and managed her own business, Kline Realty in Williamsburg, for eleven years. The ornate tin ceiling and the wooden floors in her office reflect the original modest designs commonly found throughout Williamsburg. In two neat rows, mismatched antique desks and a hodge-podge of leather chairs accommodate her staff.
Kline’s office in the back is decorated with ornate Asian kimonos and photos she took in Costa Rica. On the walls of the conference room, antique photographs of people rescued from thrift stores in the area; portraits of couples and families in period dress stare absently from the photos as nameless members of history.
“I have no idea who they are. Some day I would like to find out,” Kline muses. She likes the mystery and romance of the pictures, and the warm nostalgia they offer for the way things were.
As Kline sits behind her desk, the smoke from her Marlboro Red curls up from her fingers and disappears near her head where the thin gray plumes blend into the color of her hair. When she stands to shake hands, it is surprising how tall she is: six feet, in fact. Relaxing back down in her chair she lets her cigarette smolder into ash as she begins to talk.
In 1990, Kline opened Kline Real Estate with two assistants and began aggressively marketing real estate in Brooklyn. Kline’s strategy was to concentrate in one geographic location. She considered Williamsburg and Greenpoint her turf, and insistently pursued both industrial and residential spaces in the area. It was “a total struggle at first, but I hustled. No one was as aggressive,” Kline says with a throaty laugh. “I’m just a bulldog.”
Kline doesn’t exactly look like a bulldog, with her long and lanky limbs and neat, dutch-boy haircut, but her presence is bold. Because of Kline’s height, she can meet eye to eye with most grown men (if she’s not indeed looking down on them). Along with her wide grin and hearty laugh, Kline would never be called a wallflower.
Kenn Firpo, who has sold real estate in the area since 1983, and has known Kline for 20 years, describes a determined professional mien, “She gets her commission because she knows her sellers and she knows the area.”
Before Williamsburg and Greenpoint became the center of hip-dom, Kline planted herself here years ago because she’s always had a genuine love of the area. Remove the newer, shinier veneer from Williamsburg and you are left with a solid, residential neighborhood where Italian, Latino, Polish and Hasidic communities thrive. Kline, who has lived in the area for 40 years, understands and appreciates the depth of culture and community, and eyes the recent bustle on Bedford Avenue with wry acceptance.
Kenneth Cory, who owns the Orlando Funeral Home next door to Kline’s office, credits the good relations between the old residents and the new ones in the area to Kline.
“She is a neighborhood person. She wants to do right and gets the right kind of people in the neighborhood,” he said, “ones who respect what’s always been here.”
Cory adds that he enjoys seeing the influx of younger people in the neighborhood, although, he jokes “it doesn’t exactly help my business.”
Although Kline’s s success is solidified, she wasn’t always at the top of the heap. For years, she went about trying to find ways to make a living without compromising her independence.
Originally from Dutchess County in upstate New York, Kline’s mother divorced her father and began to roam around the country taking young Suzy with her. Kline had already been in eight different grammar schools when her mother, ending a second marriage, remarried Suzy’s father and they settled down in Las Vegas.
After spending the longest stretch of time of being in one place, the family left Las Vegas and Suzy finished high school in New Hampshire. It was there that she was invited by a girlfriend to move to Park Slope in Brooklyn. She soon found work as a secretary, but didn’t like being under someone else’s thumb and longed to be her own boss.
In 1964, after years of hopping from job to job, Kline found herself in a recruiting office looking for the next gig. She was offered a choice between working as a typist for the non-profit organization Big Brothers or working at MetLife.
“Someone told me that at MetLife, they would ring a bell letting you know you could go on coffee break,” says Kline with a look of exaggerated horror on her face, “so Big Brothers it was.”
Kline enjoyed working as a liaison between kids and community volunteers and moved her way up to Recreation Director for the organization. Although the work was rewarding, she was having a difficult time making ends meet. That’s when a friend named Lenny Osser offered to teach her locksmithing. Osser told her, “I just trained my first Chinese, so I might as well train a woman,” she recalls.
Being a locksmith was physically demanding work, but Kline managed to lug the sixty pounds of tools that were required for the job and learned how to drill into steel doors and concrete doorframes. ”It wasn’t easy, but if the drill flew out of my hand I would grab it by the cord and keep going.”
She made up her own flyers and would distribute them to high-rise buildings throughout the city. She never mentioned that a woman would execute the service. “When people called, they just thought I was the secretary, and I let them think that until I came and knocked on their door.” Although Kline proved she was capable of the job, she grew bored with a business where she never saw the same person twice.
After a brief stint selling jewelry in Texas and Louisiana, she moved back to New York City and worked again in nonprofit for three years. She earned a B.S. in Human Services Administration through Empire State College. Then Suzy switched gears in an effort to make a more substantial living and began working for Brachocki Real Estate.
It was there that she met John Belo, a customer of hers, who also happened to be one of the owners of the industrial real estate firm Kaplon-Belo. In 1981, industrial real estate was still a male only field. Kline remembers Belo calling over at Brachocki and asking to speak with one of her male co-workers. When she learned that Belo was trying to gauge his interest in selling industrial real estate, Kline told him that she was interested. “He told me, ‘not a woman, not a woman!,’ but I pressed him and he said (reluctantly), ‘well, talk to Dick Kaplon, he’s in charge of hiring.'”
Kaplon was more receptive to the idea and asked Kline if she had a car with air-conditioning. Replying that she did, Kline gained the honor of becoming the first woman to sell industrial real estate in the New York area.
Despite Belo’s apprehension, Suzy proved that she could do more than just hold her own. By the time she left the company, she was responsible for selling and renting many industrial properties in Brooklyn.
After more than eight years of working for Kaplon-Belo, she made the last step towards true independence when she opened Kline Real Estate. Now with her own office and six employees working for her, it seems that most of Kline’s battles have been won.
There is a picture hanging near Kline’s desk that shows her standing in the middle of a huge warehouse. Here, her six-foot stature is not out of place framed between the industrial size vent ducts and the concrete floor.
She seems oblivious to the photographer, who captures her clutching paperwork to her chest and looking up into the vast ceiling with a small private smile. She seems completely at home.
Shelley Preston is National freelance editor/writer specializing in travel and lifestyle and has written for many publications including The Ledger and The New York Times.
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