NEW YORK, JUNE 20 -- A church bell tolled, police motorcycles rumbled, and an expectant crowd along Broadway hushed, then surged forward today. William Breedlove knew those signs meant that the moment he had awaited for two hours was near.

"He's coming," Breedlove whispered, craning his neck to see the hero of the ticker-tape parade. And soon, there was Nelson Mandela, seated beside his wife, Winnie, as they swept royally past beneath a shield of protective plexiglass.

"It is these moments that make the struggle to live worthwhile," said Breedlove, 29, an actor from Harlem. Mandela's visit to the United States, he said, was a "step for humanity. It's so easy to say he's for one particular group of people. He represents freedom, justice, democracy -- true democracy."

Mandela's arrival generated a wave of excitement across this city, from the poor Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn to the white-collar Wall Street financial district. In his wake, New Yorkers who watched him pass noted that the city -- polarized along racial lines by recent murders, rapes and boycotts -- sorely needed a dose of the inspiration that he represents.

"It's almost the same here in New York, the way people hate each other," said Sha-Kei Powell, 12, a sixth-grader from Bedford-Stuyvesant.

So strong was the pull of the South African black leader that conductors slowed trains on elevated subway tracks in Brooklyn to lean out of open windows, hoping to see Mandela on the nearby athletic field of Boys and Girls High School.

Carolyn Lyons, 69, a retired nurse from Washington Heights, put on running shoes and a straw hat decorated with an African-designed button to go see Mandela, who spent 27 years in a South African prison.

"Oh, honey, I wouldn't have missed this," she said after the parade passed. "This is once in a lifetime. I might not be here in another 27 years. I thought the poor soul would die before he got out."

The crowds greeting Mandela, 71, in Manhattan were cheerful and racially mixed; in Brooklyn, most were black. "He's trying to get his country free," said John Moore, 83, of Brooklyn. "This country should be free too."

Schoolchildren who had been taught about Mandela in class lined parade barricades, and office workers took three-hour lunch breaks to await the much-delayed motorcade.

At the Wang Co. customer-service office on lower Broadway, software specialists Ozzie Cruz, 31, Howard Ng, 26, and Louis Nucci, 32, ripped, shredded and threw every scrap of spare paper onto the motorcade.

Climbing onto a narrow concrete ledge, they also taped a computer-generated "Welcome Nelson Mandela" sign to the window overlooking the route, as they recalled doing for the 1986 ticker-tape parade honoring the New York Mets.

"There's been a lot of controversy about the money that's being spent" for Mandela's visit, "especially with the city in such trouble," said Tom Refano, 27, a Wang employee. "But with all the worldwide attention he's getting, New York's got to show he's welcome. There are a lot of black people in New York."

Marchers included Scottish bagpipers, Chinese dancers, African drummers and school bands. Protesters were scarce. One man, who would not give his name, spat angrily on the ground as he attempted to engage other watchers in curbside debate.

"He put his arm around Arafat," the man said, referring to Mandela and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "Anything he does is bloody and is murder."

Such criticism was an exception on a festive day. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, merchants draped multicolored streamers and welcome signs over the street taken by the motorcade when Mandela left the high school.

The crowd at the high school was all black and predominantly young, with a strong representation of West Indian immigrants.

Fernando Pitterson, a Jamaican immigrant, suggested that Mandela would unify persons of African descent worldwide: "Mandela is going to transcend nationality, whether American or Jamaican, and tie up black people all over the place."

Erna Letemps, 21, traveled from Orange, N.J., to Brooklyn with 25 other Haitian-American students to see Mandela. "We're inspired by his perseverance," she said.

Many people at the school event immediately boarded subways for Manhattan to see Mandela again. After the parade, as sanitation workers moved in with leaf blowers and push brooms, Jade Williams, 11, stooped in the middle of litter-strewn Broadway to scribble on a sheet of paper.

"Mandela Lives," she wrote. Asked what she meant, she said: "His legend lives. I think people should believe in him."

Staff writer Lynne Duke contributed to this report.