These leather straps on the Roosevelt Island tram were the last of their breed in Gotham. The tradition dated to the 19th century. (Photo: Anthony Lanzilote)

The leather harnesses once synonymous with city commuting have reached the end of the line.

This month, the straps that commuters clung to on the Roosevelt Island Tramway were retired as part of the system’s $25 million makeover. And so went the last vestige of a tradition that gave city commuters their nickname, “straphangers.”

“That’s sad. It obviously means a lot to us,” said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, a watchdog group that was named after the harnesses.

The leather straps debuted on the city’s elevated lines in the 19th century, when they were used in many American transit systems. The long bands also hung from the ceilings of the first subway cars, allowing several dozen riders to stand.

“It fit in your hand. It was easy to grab. There was nothing not to like,” said Stan Fischler, a subway historian.

But the straps faced competition, with porcelain handles debuting on trains around 1914, Fischler said. The leather harnesses tended to wear out and were seen as unsanitary.

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“They were nice, but they were really old-fashioned technology,” said Peter Derrick, a subway historian.

Straps bowed out of the subways in 1969, when the Myrtle Avenue el ended service. But they came back in 1976, when the Roosevelt Island tram was launched. When those wore out 15 years ago, Armando Cardova, the tram’s operations manager, had two dozen more fashioned at a Bronx shoe store for $15 a pop.

“People who grew up with the tram and the regulars loved them,” said Cardova.
Come August, the trams will have metal grabs.

But the straphangers name lives on. Russianoff has to explain its meaning to younger generations, but it still embodies the city’s commuter ethos, he said.

“It denotes some kind of struggle,” he said. “You are not sitting in a seat reading a novel, you’re hanging on for your dear life.”