The mayors of 17 large cities urged the federal government today to turn its attention to their problems, and called for economic aid and programs to provide jobs and housing and improve deteriorating roads and sewer systems.

At a news conference here, Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young said, "We are in a watershed economic crisis, one of the most significant periods of history since the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society. We do not come in a partisan sense to attack anyone, rather to attack the problems with specific proposals."

Indianapolis Mayor William H. Hudnut III, identifying himself as "the token Republican," said, "It is essential the United States Congress recognize the two fundamental problems of the cities -- jobs and the deterioration of the infrastructure. It is mandatory that the decaying infrastructure be attended to. We cannot do it on our own."

The mayors' comments came after a day-long meeting of members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors with representatives of private industry and organized labor.

Conference spokesman Coleman reiterated the group's earlier support for an increase in the gasoline tax that would be targeted to the transportation needs of the cities, cuts in the defense budget, job training programs and a Reconstruction Finance Corp. to encourage public and private investment in the cities.

They also insisted that the Reagan administration's "New Federalism" initiative does not meet their needs.

"We simply do not have the fiscal resources, without making hard choices between increasing taxes and decreasing services," said Hudnut.

Those present also expressed the view that any economic recovery would not be enough to help the cities.

"The best economic projections show an economic growth of 2 or 3 percent," said Felix G. Rohatyn, chairman of the New York Municipal Assistance Corp., who joined the mayors for the news conference. "Structural unemployment in the cities is 6 or 7 percent. Those kinds of growth rates are simply not enough to get from here to there."