Afterward he helped launch one more big fight. In 2004 he and urban designer Cary Moon started a campaign for a highway-free downtown waterfront: no viaduct, no tunnel, more transit. Cogswell crafted the message, the name (the People’s Waterfront Coalition), and a waterfront vision: the Seattle Strand, a shore and a bejeweled string, strung with parks instead of pearls.
Their effort transformed the public debate. In a three-way advisory vote, Seattleites preferred the no-highway option, eventually forcing the state to back off demanding a new viaduct and settle for a compromise tunnel. Moon, who’s still fighting the tunnel plan, has gotten the public credit. But she says Cogswell’s work was invaluable: “We’ll realize much later how much he contributed to the city.”
At the same time Cogswell launched a very different but likewise audacious project. An old friend named Dan Gildark, now studying filmmaking in Portland, asked him to write a screenplay. Cogswell set aside his dream of a Zioncheck film and dashed out Cthulhu, a “Gothic, apocalyptic, anti-Bush, gay horror” feature derived from H. P. Lovecraft and set in a fictionalized Astoria, with undertones of his own haunted family history. He sold his condo, poured in $140,000 of a family inheritance, and, his persuasive powers undimmed, lured more investors—plus Tori Spelling, to play a scary seductress.
Meanwhile, the monorail fight dragged on. After voters passed Falkenbury and Cogswell’s 1997 initiative, the city council stonewalled. Proponents sued to force the council to act; it responded by repealing the initiative. Voters then passed two more initiatives reinstating the monorail plan, and overwhelmingly rejected a 2004 measure to scuttle it. But the project got saddled with bloated costs, a compromised route, feeble taxing capacity, and fatally expensive financing. Cogswell by then had no official role. “But I was still trying to shepherd it along,” he says. “My heart was completely invested in it.
“I knew it was over when I saw the headline in the P-I, in June 2005—‘$11 Billion Monorail Plan.’ ” Public confidence collapsed, and so did Cogswell. “I called a friend, and we went to the bowling alley for a beer. I burst into tears, just kept sobbing and sobbing. I couldn’t stop.”
Rather than pausing to seek better financing, Mayor Greg Nickels pushed the monorail plan to another public vote—its fifth. This time, weary voters pulled the plug. “When it finally did crash, I walked around in tears for a week. My vision of what I was doing with my life, my future, my identity as a poet—they were all wrapped up in it. That’s when I gave up on Seattle. It was my muse. I haven’t written poetry since.”
Worse, Cogswell almost gave up on life itself. “I came super fucking close. That’s all I’m willing to say.” Five years later he’s still trying to sort out what happened. Sometimes he thinks Zioncheck’s cautionary example saved him from suicide: “If it weren’t for him I wouldn’t be alive,” he told me. Two weeks later he wasn’t so sure: “To have him as a warning helped me ride it out, but you don’t know until you go. Knowing about Zioncheck’s suicide didn’t help me avoid my own in the long run.… It was purely circumstance that saved me.”
BACK FROM THE BRINK
Cogswell threw himself into finishing Cthulhu. It premiered in 2007, found a few cultish fans, and otherwise bombed. “Lesson—don’t spend all your savings making a bad horror movie,” he says now. “Producing a movie is much harder than running for office.”
In 2008 Cogswell published a lurid account of its making for The Stranger: “I was the screenwriter, second-biggest investor, PR hack, extras coordinator, and a sometimes producer of the largest, most expensive locally produced film ever made in Seattle. It took five years. It cost $1 million, and its extremely slow projected return may have broken the bank for local distribution-quality films for the foreseeable future. It ruined my health, driving me to the brink of suicide twice, and from sobriety back down into a drinking life (and, briefly, the cocaine life below that ) and aggravating a chronic muscle condition that addicted me to painkillers…”
Updated September 22, 2010. This version corrects errors originally published in the October 2010 issue. Grant Cogswell, and not collaborator Cary Moon, crafted the message and the vision for the People’s Waterfront Coalition.