If we had been sitting on a stage instead of his home, I’d have had to block my credit card – because mentalist Christoph Kuch just told me what my PIN number is - and that it’s a MasterCard.
All he had asked me to do was to think about the number as I answered questions about whether I preferred red or white wine, Porsche or Ferrari, guinea pigs or cats.
How does he do it?
Asking a mind reader – much less one currently ranked best mentalist on the planet – to give me an example of his art is obviously risky business. A few more examples later, and the feeling of having someone see right through me is both confusing and irritating, especially as Kuch is uncannily good at deciphering truth from untruth.
Then again, being able to tell the difference between an honest answer and a lie is daily bread for a mentalist. One of the ways he can tell the difference between someone lying, and someone who is really trying to recall something, is the direction their eyes are looking. Poker, says the 37-year-old German, is a game his friends refuse to play with him.
Kuch is this year’s winner in the Mental Magic category at the FISM World Championships of Magic – something that for magicians is akin to winning gold at the Olympics. Every three years, the world’s top artists in “close-up magic” and stage magic – among which mentalists – turn up at this event in Blackpool, U.K., to measure themselves against other stars in their field. All participants must have qualified nationally first: Kuch was German champion in 2011.
At the Championships, 160 mentalists from around the world competed and – as has been the case for the past 27 years – no one came in first: once again, nobody met the unusually high requirements. Kuch came in second, which means he is currently the world’s best, and that is why the world’s best-known club for magicians, the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, invited him for a week. This Mecca of magic, which is reminiscent of the Hogwarts magic school in the Harry Potter books, is invitation only –and that includes the audience.
Christoph Kuch does not look like your idea of a magician. Likeable, unassuming, tall, with a shock of brown hair, he looks like the nice sporty young father from next door, who’s maybe a biology teacher or a cool minister.
Among modern magicians, mentalists are the rock stars. They have an ever-wider audience, not only for their stage shows, but also at corporate events, fairs, and as entertainers at galas and dinners.
Mental magic is not about hocus-pocus. Practitioners don’t use the usual appurtenances, the cloths and rabbits and doves; they don’t saw women in half. And they create something more than astonishment in the audience – they give people goose bumps.
Knowledge of human nature is of the essence in mental magic: "Peoples’ facial expressions and body language give away a lot more about them than they realize or want to believe," says Kuch. Statistics are important too – little things like women’s favorite color is often blue, while men tend to prefer green. Put it all together and you can create some awesome tricks.
Relating well to the public is crucial for this type of magic, Kuch says, adding that it’s easier to get women to come up on stage than it is men. "Women are more open, while men often want to show you that they are not going to let themselves be manipulated."
Kuch discovered his passion for the arts of magic when he was a kid, playing with his magic set. That led to thousands of hours of practicing, reading, and observing. As a young adult, he took private courses in magic in Nuremberg for three years. If he has to, he can still make coins disappear or take a Ping-Pong ball out from behind your ear, but that kind of magic began to pale for him once he got into the mentalist’s universe of body language, suggestion, telepathy, and psychology. And now, after years of training, he knows how thoughts make themselves visible.
A magical mix
"If somebody’s hiding a coin in one hand, the tip of their nose is almost always pointed in the direction of the hand holding the coin," he says. When people think about a noise, their eyes tend to look off to one side; when they think about a picture their eyes tend to look upwards. If Kuch imitates the body language of the person he’s interacting with they find him sympathetic, and he can tell when their body or voice suddenly tenses whether they are feeling joy, insecurity – or are lying.
Influential people tend to move more slowly and majestically than people with little power. When we find something unpleasant, we tend to narrow our eyes even though there has been no change in light. Yet Kuch says he wouldn’t make a reliable human replacement for a lie detector test because body signals are never 100% reliable.
To him, mental magic combines reality and fiction, a mix of psychology, suggestion and magic with a single aim: to entertain. "There’s nothing supernatural about it,” he says – although that’s hard to believe watching his most spectacular trick when he takes his audience on an imaginary deep-sea diving excursion to the wreck of the "Titanic."
A member of the audience chosen at random thinks of a name for the submersible and writes it on a piece of paper. How many feet down does the submersible go? The person writes a figure. An old coin is in the wreck: what’s the year engraved on the coin? That also gets written down. At this point Kuch opens a sealed envelope and reads out what the person wrote: name of boot, number of feet down. And around his neck is a chain with an old coin bearing the same year the audience member thought of.
Yet during our interview when Kuch’s little daughter comes to ask him help her find her doll, like any other dad the champ has to get down on his hands and knees to check under the sofa. He can only read the thoughts people know; otherwise he has to guess like everybody else.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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