DC Leaders break ground at The Wharf. Courtesy of Andy Litsky
By Wilma Goldstein
For the past 24 years, Andy Litsky served as a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) representing the Southwest Waterfront. Since Home Rule provided for local elected representation in DC, fewer than 40 intensely dedicated citizens have served on the ANC representing Southwest. In January 2023, Litsky joined the ranks of the former commissioners, stepping down from his position after nearly a quarter of a century of service.
The change in the Southwest quadrant of the city since Litsky first took office has been transformative. Twenty-five years ago, the old waterfront was home to a few restaurants, and visitors to Buzzard Point or Capitol Riverfront who didn’t have business with the Navy would have come upon little but a series of clubs, light industry and hard times.
Today, visitors on both sides of South Capitol Street – represented for the past twenty years by ANC-6D – encounter a dramatically different experience. There are fifty new apartment buildings, thousands of new residents, Nats Park, Audi Field, nearly twenty hotels, three new major museums, acres of new park space, the most exciting concert venue south of New York City, the redeveloped Arena Stage complex at the world class Meade Center for American Theater, enough restaurants to fill out dining options for months, and all of that bookended by The Yards and The Wharf – two spectacular developments that have physically and culturally reconnected Washington to its waterfront heritage.
“Andy Litsky is too modest to fully acknowledge the outsized role he has played in shaping our neighborhood and our ANC over the past decades,” said Marjorie Lightman, a two-term member of ANC-6D.
Although the most visible aspects of the neighborhood’s renaissance have taken place over the past two decades, a confluence of factors over many years led to such change. A court-supported urban renewal project begun in the late 1950’s leveled nearly every building in Southwest to create ‘a new community,’ but failed to recognize that there was already an established community and, shamefully, displaced thousands of mostly Black residents, many of whom never returned.
Community residents gained new rights to govern their own affairs in the decades after urban renewal, when the 1973 DC Home Rule Act returned local control to DC voters and provided a new opportunity to establish real neighborhood change. In addition to an elected Mayor and City Council, the act also created Advisory Neighborhood Commissions representing every District neighborhood, each with a Commissioner serving as a local ombudsman for approximately 2,000 constituents. ANC Commissioners are unpaid, but they perform a vital responsibility to provide all manner of guidance, based upon neighborhood input, to District agencies on economic development, housing, recreation, and transportation among a host of other issues. Most importantly, the advice and counsel provided by each ANC Commission is by law given “great weight” in District decision making. The combination of significant local input with the ready capital and vision presented by the investment community can bring dramatic and positive change.
In 1977, Andy Litsky moved to Southwest after teaching abroad and in New York City public schools, completing graduate school in Boston and spending the previous year “on the road” determined to help put a Democrat back in the White House. When Jimmy Carter won, rather than opting to join the Administration, Litsky chose to work for the National Cable Television Association, who had recruited him to develop the grassroots political operation for the industry, eventually becoming Director of Public Affairs during its most explosive period of growth. He later worked as a communications consultant and did pro-bono work for a variety of candidates for federal office.
Initially, Litsky was attracted to Southwest for its proximity to the water, the elegant tree canopy and the feeling of light and air. But he soon discovered, in this most northern of southern cities, that Southwest Washington was one of the few places at the time that openly sought to market apartment complexes where the races lived together, as less than a decade after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, there were still areas of Washington that were tacitly restricted.
Litsky’s involvement in Southwest politics began in the early 1980s. He was a founding member of Tiber Island Cooperative Homes, where he has lived since 1977. He served on the boards of the Arena Stage Angels, their original volunteer organization, and Southwest House, then the largest social service organization serving the African American community in the District. He volunteered at Food & Friends which began operating out of the basement at Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivering food to homebound people with AIDS. While he was lobbying the late John Wilson, then Southwest’s Councilmember and later Council Chair, to support a bill that mandated insurance companies provide services to people with HIV/AIDS, Wilson convinced Litsky to devote more energy to District affairs. Wilson became a mentor and Litsky has since followed his counsel to “serve where you live.”
Litsky was born in the Bronx, New York and is a product of the New York City Public schools and a graduate of the New York University System. His education led him to a job with the Youth Services Administration working with street gangs after which he taught overseas and spent several more years with New York public schools upon his return. He attributes his training as a teacher for his successful advocacy in many fields of endeavor, saying “when it comes right down to it, all advocacy is education.” Allies and those he was ‘educating’ alike learned that with Litsky, not every message is sugar coated and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but they would always know where he stood and who he served.
Litsky actively campaigned against congressional interference in local elections that would have reimposed the death penalty in the District. He fought against a plan supported by then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly for a DC Grand Prix that would have sealed off much of Southwest for two weeks every year for an auto race. He successfully fought to repeal the ill-conceived internet gambling law that had earlier passed the Council. And he also led the fight to protect city control over Randall Field on South Capitol Street, which has now become DC’s premier Little League baseball field.
It was in the mid 1990s, with too many friends impacted by HIV/AIDS, that Andy decided to devote his professional skills to something more meaningful than consulting. He convinced Jim Graham, then the Executive Director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, to hire him. For the next several years, he handled the clinic’s communications, advertising and social marketing. After twice chairing the Ward Two Democrats, serving as a convention delegate for Bill Clinton and as treasurer of the DC Combined Democratic Campaign, Litsky decided to establish a hyper local focus.
In 1998, the citizen activist filed papers to run for a seat on the ANC, where he went on to represent the Southwest Waterfront for 24 years, 16 of which he served as either Chair or Vice-Chair of the commission.
Litsky’s election to the ANC paralleled development activity that was just beginning to percolate on both sides of South Capitol Street. During that time, the small and oft-forgotten neighborhood of Southwest was about to undergo a period of dramatic development rivaling that of many American cities. Litsky counseled constitutions and leaders alike to “recognize that we are building a new city here between the National Mall/Expressway and our two rivers. We have to prepare for that challenge.”
In 2003, then-Mayor Anthony Williams’ ambitious Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan set forth a visionary agenda for the revitalization of the waterfront as a world-class destination and set in motion the implementation of a comprehensive blueprint creating new mixed-income neighborhoods, environmental restoration, connected parks and cultural destinations.
As the elements of gentrification took root in Southwest, Litsky remained aware that ANC-6D had more public housing than any other ANC in the District. Many of those residents were rightly concerned that development was about to close in on them. The lessons of urban renewal were hard learned, and there was a commitment not to repeat its failures. ANC6D advocated to ensure existing Southwest residents could benefit from the changes to come – with training programs, construction jobs and increasing the percentage of new construction as affordable housing. Most importantly, any development would require no displacement or dispersal of existing residents — the genesis of the Build First movement in Southwest.
Litsky is quick to remind that it is the ANC Commission that has the great weight – not individual commissioners. Over the course of his tenure, ANC6D very effectively measured each development beyond technical matters, weighing each project against its larger benefit to the community. Lasting community benefits negotiated by ANC-6D during his tenure touch on housing and public space, (the completion of thousands of units of affordable housing, the refurbishment of local park and landscaped street space, Eleanor Holmes Norton Waterfront Park) access to the arts, (specially priced Southwest Nights at Arena Stage and free admission to the Rubell Museum for all DC residents) education and learning, (contributions of thousands of dollars to Parent-Teacher Organizations at local schools and to Friends of the Southwest Library for special projects) and opportunities for the community to come together (requiring that the open space at Fourth and M be activated for community use until such time as the land is built upon and $250,000 seed money to develop the planning and construction of a new park between the Duck Pond and the Southwest Library).
According to Rubell Museum DC founder Mera Rubell, “Andy has been a tremendous champion for the Southwest community and over the last 15 years worked hard to bring the Rubell Museum to the Southwest neighborhood.”
The project with which Litsky has been most closely associated was within his own
ANC Single Member District. The Wharf is the largest private development in Washington, DC and has dramatically transformed the Southwest neighborhood and the city. From the very beginning, Litsky worked closely with the developers, making sure that during every facet of planning and construction they understood they were becoming part of – not subsuming — a thriving Southwest Community.
“Andy has been a tireless advocate for the Gangplank liveaboard community,” said Jason Kopp, a former president of the Gangplank Slipholders Association. “He protected our rights and helped to ensure our community would continue to exist during and after the construction of The Wharf. We would not still be in Southwest DC without his efforts.”
With construction of The Wharf among the most lasting achievements of his tenure, Litsky committed to remaining on the ANC through the opening of Phase Two of the development, exactly five years after the opening of the initial phase in 2017.
“Andy was instrumental in providing continuity and integrity to a very large, long and complex process,” said Monty Hoffman, Founder and Chairman of The Wharf developers Hoffman & Associates. “It included over 1,000 meetings with local stakeholders, rezoning through approval of 10 PUD’s, and passing numerous District legislative bills along with four acts of Congress. A project of this scale only happens when all ‘sides’ come together, and Andy was there – front and center – the entire time. I didn’t always agree with him, but I respected him. Andy was a fierce advocate for community interests.”
With the completion of such a lengthy and essential project, Litsky announced his retirement from the ANC, saying he was ready to relinquish that role and provide space for others to continue service to the neighborhood.
Well done, Commissioner Litsky, well done.