American Treasure

When Oprah Winfrey created her Oprah’s Book Club the millions of readers all absorbing the same book created a sort of intellectual energy field. “Greenwich Reads Together” is a similar concept: a community-wide reading experience seeking to engage all of Greenwich in exploring a single book. Its goal is to deepen engagement with literature through reading and discussion. The book chosen for this year is “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers. A winner of the American Book Award and multiple other awards, “Zeitoun” describes the experience of a father of four who chooses to stay through Hurricane Katrina to protect his home and business. To complement this initiative, the Greenwich Arts Council hosted a discussion last week with Andre Lanoux, a current Greenwich resident formerly of New Orleans who experienced Hurricane Katrina. For more information log onto Greenwicharts.org.

I’ve always been fascinated by New Orleans, after all she’s a little like me… Old World meets New World and all the colorful rites of passage such a meeting engenders. The French Quarter is a slice of history with French, Creole, Spanish, Caribbean and American bursts of flavor. Every building, restaurant and hotel is not merely a new construction but an edifice where hundreds of years of history are as vibrant as ever.

Nowhere is this more prominent than in the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, see for yourself Bourbonorleans.com. Replete with every modern luxury a 2012 tourist desires its contemporary conveniences belly its colorful past… but with just a sprinkling of imagination it comes to life on the wings of a waltz…

In 1817 the Orleans Ballroom was opened, becoming the setting for the most elegant masquerade, carnival and infamous Quadroon Balls. A Quadroon was the term for a fair-skinned African American woman selected at a Ball to become the mistress of a wealthy Creole gentleman. Free people of color or “Gens de couleur libres” as they were known, flourished as a separate social group in antebellum New Orleans. Seen through the wide spectrum of American history they have been largely overlooked, but in 1840 these French-speaking people made up 20% of the city’s population. They were largely the freed descendants of enslaved women and their white owners, or refugees from the Haitian slave revolts who had immigrated to Louisiana. As of the 1850s, free people of color owned more than $2 million worth of property, some even owned slaves.

Today, the Bourbon Orleans is a sumptuous hotel and still houses the original ballroom. True to its nature, glamorous balls are still the order of the day… but if you close your eyes and listen, you can still hear the romantic strains of the orchestra, the swishing of beautiful gowns and the laughter of the even more beautiful women who wore them… As you read the “Greenwich Reads Together” book “Zeitoun” I hope you’ll take more from it than just its rendering of Katrina. New Orleans is a city whose past is filled with light and shadows, like the Mona Lisa her secrets make her all the more beautiful…

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