The Run Down

As a city of over 2.7 million people, it’s the people of Chicago and their stories that make living here unlike any other place in the world. That’s why we recently launched the My Block, My Hood, My City series which features city guides that focus on the people of Chicago and the neighborhoods they live in. For this guide, we’ll be telling the story of Danny Mota. He’s an artist, photographer, creative director, and Logan Square resident, who in matter of a few short years, went from working in strategy/finance to directing big budget commercial shoots. Here are the details.

1. Morning workout @Unanimous Boxing Gym
2. Choose Your Own Breakfast Adventure
3. Drones @ Rooftop

1. Unanimous Boxing Gym

For our first stop, we’re taking the Blue Line to Logan Square and starting off with an early morning workout at Unanimous Boxing. There’s an abundance of crossfit gyms, cycling centers, and yoga studios, but true boxing gyms aren’t as prevalent. This place is a legit boxing gym with a full sized ring. When you feel the urge to punch or get punched, this place is the spot to strap on the gloves.

Downstairs is a more traditional crossfit style studio, which is where I’m meeting Danny. This is his typical Saturday morning routine. When he’s not here, however, you’ll catch him running around Chicago with a camera, and using the backdrop of the city as a canvas to create mesmerizing digital works of art. For a quick detour from this guide, you can check out his Instagram at dannymota.  

Here’s a picture of a typical Saturday morning workout. When the workout scheme includes doing 100+ reps of different exercise movements, that’s my cue to turn around and have a cheeseburger. For you more disciplined people, kudos you.

2. Choose Your Own Breakfast Adventure

After this early morning workout, Danny and I walk down Milwaukee Ave., cutting through the heart of Logan Square — a neighborhood Danny has called home for nearly his entire life–to grab breakfast.

It’s hard not to notice all the cranes and construction along the street. Compared to the Logan Square he knew growing up, today’s Logan Square is almost unrecognizable. The Logan Square he knew growing up was rougher around the edges, and made up of mainly a Hispanic immigrant population that arrived in the 1960s. The beginning of that population wave brought Danny’s parents who eventually settled here.

Logan square, as of late, is going through a development boom with what seems like a new crop of coffee shops, eateries, and condo developments springing up in the area each month. The topic of gentrification is on the top of everyone’s minds down here.  What does it mean for the folks in the neighborhood that have lived there for decades and are now feeling the financial pressures of rising costs? Aren’t outside money and investments into a previously neglected neighborhood a good thing?

Questions about whether this change is good or bad are conversations worth having. But these aren’t new questions or new problems. It’s been happening for as long as people have been living, and Chicago isn’t immune to that. As we chatted, I don’t think Danny or I really knew a good policy solution either. It’s complicated, but what we both seemed to agree on was that when a neighborhood becomes “hot,” it attracts big business and big money. If you’re up against that, it’s tough to resist.

For now, Logan Square is a mix of old and new. To highlight that dynamic, we’re playing a “choose your own adventure” game with breakfast.

Option 1 is to grab biscuits and gravy at Cozy Corner, a no-frills corner breakfast place that’s been serving the neighborhood for over 30 years. Option 2 is a cold brew coffee and healthy fish taco bowl at Lonesome Rose, a new Mexican joint that opened up in 2017. We take a look at both places below.

Option 1: Cozy Corner

Our first option is right at the California Blue Line stop, and by that, I mean it’s visible from the train platform. This is a place that’s been around for over 30 years and even with all the new places popping up around it, I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon. I get that sense, because there is a massive line going out the door every weekend morning.

Don’t get discouraged by the line, however, because efficiency is the name of the game at this place and they get your food in quick and people out fast.

As far as the food is concerned, this is a no-frills breakfast place. Strong coffee, a mean biscuits and gravy, and a few Mexican inspired breakfast choices that undoubtedly has been influenced by the neighborhood’s large Hispanic population.

Option 2: Lonesome Rose

Our second option is a few blocks off the California Blue Line stop at lonesome Rose. This is the place we ended up at instead of Cozy Corner. It’s a new restaurant serving Tex-Mex and Mexican fare that’s designed in the familiar minimalist and modern mold as many other new bars and eateries in the area.

The food here is exactly what you want after a hard morning workout. The ingredients are fresh and the dishes are light. Pictured above is the baja fish bowl. It’s big chunks of avocado, salsa, fresh greens and grilled fish on a bed of rice.

Wait times can get long here, so if you’re not in the mood to wait, grab a seat at the bar where it’s first come, first served. We sat at the bar and it’s where I got to know a little more about Danny and his story.

Danny’s experience is the all-American dream if I ever heard of one. It’s the reason parents like his immigrate to the U.S. It’s the promise that if you come here, work hard, put in the hours, and take chances, then you can find success.

Today, Danny works for Havas, a mega global branding and advertising agency. He directs and shoots national commercial for big companies and manages big-time advertising budgets. It was only some years ago, however, that Danny was a new graduate from DePaul who started his career in a corporate finance/strategy role at Pepsico and then later as an account executive at the advertising agency, Leo Burnett.

While toiling away in his office job, there was an itch to exercise his creative muscle. He drew in his spare time, read design books, dabbled in photography, but he wasn’t a creative professional. So instead of languishing in his cubicle, he did something about it. With the grit and discipline of person willing to wake up early on a Saturday morning to go through a 1000 rep workout, Danny got to work.

Before most people even got out of bed, Danny was already in his office cubicle watching Youtube tutorials about Photoshop, After Effects, Premiere and any other design software he could get his hands on. As people strolled into the office, he was already there 2 hours before taking notes and working on projects like he was in school again. He eventually started putting what he learned into practice and started posting his work on Instagram. He was an Instagram pioneer and was one of the earlier users to go beyond food pics and really transform his images into interesting surrealist landscapes.

He started to build a small following of maybe a few thousand people, and then one day his phone was blowing up with thousands of notifications of new followers. Out of nowhere and unaware, an article from a national publication listed his Instagram profile as one to follow in Chicago. Now this is the part in Danny’s story where things start to snowball.

He tells me the rest of it as we walk to one of his favorite spots to snap pics.

4. Rooftop Views

As I mentioned before, there are a bevy of new condo developments along Milwaukee and Danny happens to live in on of them. Our last stop is the roof of his building, and I don’t know if I’ve seen a better view of Chicago. We’re up here for the view and because Danny’s got this sweet ass drone that we’re flying around.

For all you photographers out there, while this rooftop isn’t a public space, Danny gave me a tip if you want to get into rooftop photography. Getting access to a roofs can be as easy as e-mailing building managers or management companies and asking. Sometimes you get lucky and they are cool about letting you shoot. It helps if you shoot for a publication or are affiliated with something photography related. For all you subscribers, just say you’re taking pictures for Project Nande if that gives you any bit of pull.

As we fly his drone around, he tells me how his new found Instagram “fame” led to a very fortunate encounter that would change his life. Sometime after he started to gain a large following, he got a message from the Chief Creative Director at Havas, Jason Peterson. It was a short message along the lines of, “hey, lets’s shoot some pics around the city.” Peterson is basically at the top of the advertising agency pyramid. To put this in context with a sports analogy, I get the sense that it would be the same as Lebron James asking if you’d be interested in shooting some hoops.

They ended up meeting in Chinatown spending a few hours snapping pics of the city. For Danny, he thought that was the end of it, but a few weeks later, Danny ran into Peterson again at a party. Peterson was there with his wife and they both chatted it up with Danny. By the end of the night, Peterson’s wife mentioned that Danny should work for Peterson. It’s one of those “haha, but please don’t be a joke” sort of things. The next day Danny got an e-mail that read, “so you want a job?”