NEW YORK -- William Itzkowitz makes pillows in a shop no wider than a subway car. Feathers hang in the air, stirred by drafts from the holes in the ceiling and walls. Feathers stick to his felt hat and gray wool sweater; they roost in gray hair in his ears. To keep warm he wears a tattered blue down jacket, its torn sleeve patched with packing tape.

"I'm lucky. I pay $400 a month for this hole here," Itzkowitz says in his pillow-packed Lower East Side shop. "I'm crowded in like a clam. ... The real estate in New York is from hunger."

Escalating rents have squeezed Itzkowitz into a succession of storefronts, each smaller than the last and all shabbier than the original Itzkowitz Pillows, which his father, a Hungarian immigrant, founded in 1922. Very soon, the last of New York's once-thriving pillow stuffers may be extinct.

Photographer Harvey Wang got there just in time.

Now a portrait of William Itzkowitz, bare arms clean of feathers at his insistence, hangs in a museum on Fifth Avenue. Hanging nearby are photographs of 34 fellow New Yorkers, all practitioners of trades fast falling prey to gentrification, automation and cultural assimilation. The exhibit is at the Museum of the City of New York through March 29.

Here is a blacksmith, a mannequin maker and a man who digs graves by hand. Some are in their eighties and nineties. Mary Morisi makes pasta on a macaroni machine manufactured in 1913. Joey Faye performed burlesque comedy around town until most of the clubs became pornography theaters. Dominic Bencivenga wove ropes into fenders for tugboats since the year Truman beat Dewey. Now, boat fenders are made of rubber tires.

About eight years ago Wang set out to document the New York of his grandparents' day, wandering seedy side streets and warehouse districts in every borough to find his subjects. The grandchild of Austro-Hungarian immigrants, Wang, 35, grew up in Rosedale, Queens. He remembers going with his father to the Coney Island baths, now disappeared.

"There was more urgency in the '80s because under {Mayor Edward} Koch real estate prices kept skyrocketing," Wang says. "I'd talk to store owners and they would say their rents were going through the roof and they couldn't stay in business."

In addition, "the Jewish, Eastern European and Italian immigrants were getting old and these folks' children did not continue in the same businesses. All those trades from Eastern Europe were vanishing."

Wang speaks gently, smiles frequently and dresses simply, in denim shirts and jeans -- traits that undoubtedly helped as he approached potential subjects in the fish market, the Garment District or on the docks. He sought out "people who look like what they do," Wang says. "I was looking for cliches."

Most reacted by asking, "Why are you interested in me?" Wang says. "How do you tell somebody they're a piece of art? I couldn't."

With some subjects, like the pillow maker Itzkowitz, he had to be persistent. "The first time I went in, a whole shelf stacked full of pillows fell on him," Wang says of his flustered subject. "I gave up on my spiel and came back another day. I finally pestered him so much he gave in."

Wang photographs close up, with a wide-angle lens on his Leica or Nikon and using a minimum of artificial light. Pasta maker Morisi, 80, agreed to pose but said, "Hurry up and take the picture. I got to get back to work," her daughter Savina Giambrone remembers.

Wang desperately wanted to photograph an elderly sewing machine mechanic, but the man never agreed. "There was nothing I could say to him," Wang recalls. "He was absolutely adamant that he was not interesting. ... He said, 'I'm just a mechanic. Find somebody important to photograph.' "

Those who did cooperate found that Wang's photographs have brought a measure of celebrity they never imagined after years working in obscurity.

Kay Demitriou says that his barbershop, with its tin ceilings and Italian marble, is the oldest in New York City. Several blocks away is a bookstore, and Demitriou is periodically asked to autograph the book "Harvey Wang's New York." The book of 50 photographs, which form the basis for the exhibit, was published in 1990 by W.W. Norton & Co. and has nearly sold out its first printing of 10,000.

Julius Hans, another subject, is the last tailor in New York City to sew by hand the long black overcoats worn by Hasidic Jews. Customers, some the grandsons of customers, drive from Brooklyn to his shop on the Lower East Side. It takes Hans 2 1/2 days to sew the pure silk coats he sells for $500 -- a bargain, since the factory-mades go for $450.

Hans, 62, says friends called from Israel to say they saw his picture in Wang's book. Historians and photographers stop by his shop, but he has mixed feelings about the attention. "Who needs such a business?" he says. "If you don't do the work it's not done. So how can you pay the rent?"

In the years since Wang shot these portraits, many of his subjects have died, or simply succumbed to the changes.

Helen Giamanco, who since 1946 managed the salad department at the Horn & Hardart automat -- the country's first "fast food" joint, where a wall of German-made machines dispensed baked beans and apple pies -- lost her job when the last automat closed last year. Saul Fromkin, who repaired saxophones for some of the top jazz musicians of his day, closed his Times Square shop and moved to Florida when the landlord raised the rent 700 percent.

Henri Bendel, the upscale department store, closed its bridal shop and laid off Monica Hickey, who used to help brides-to-be select their gowns (she landed on her feet and got a similar job at Saks). Benesh Horowitz, who supervised the hot type typesetting at the Forward, once a Yiddish daily, had a heart attack, according to Wang. The Forward, now a weekly, is typeset by computer these days.

Siegfried Liebman, the Bronx mannequin maker, has passed away. So has Eddie Day, the brakeman on the Cyclone, Coney Island's sole remaining wooden roller coaster.

Last year, Wang received a letter from Hedy Gellineau, the wife of Victor Gellineau, a 73-year-old sign painter who did fancy lettering in gold leaf on hundreds of office doors inside the Empire State Building.

"On January 16, 1991, my husband Victor was admitted to the emergency clinic," she wrote. "In less than one hour he was comatose. He expired two weeks and two days later. ...

"I want you to know how proud he was to be a subject in your book," her letter continued. "He felt he had attained success when he appeared in your book ... and being the sign painter for the Empire State Building for the last 19 years."